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Do Private Prisons Affect Criminal Sentencing?

Christian Dippel, Michael Poyker

NBER Working Paper No. 25715
Issued in March 2019, Revised in June 2019
NBER Program(s):The Law and Economics Program, The Labor Studies Program, The Public Economics Program, The Political Economy Program

This paper provides causal evidence of the effect of private prisons on criminal sentencing. Our identification strategy uses state-level changes in private-prison capacity and compares changes in sentencing across trial court pairs that straddle state borders. We find that a doubling of private prison capacity raises sentence lengths by 1.3 percent, but not the likelihood of conviction. The effect is not driven by changes in state legislation, and we find no evidence for ‘judicial capture’. We do find some evidence that judges may internalize the lower cost of imprisonment in private prisons. Lastly, private prisons do not appear to accentuate existing racial biases in sentencing decisions.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25715

 
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