Black and white bail judges show bias against black defendants

 
Exterior of business that sells bail bonds
(Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons)
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A new study of bail judges in the Miami and Philadelphia areas suggests that both black and white judges show bias against black defendants.

The study, forthcoming in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, finds that black defendants are 2.4 percentage points more likely than white defendants to be detained while they await their court hearings. The average bail for black defendants is $7,281 higher than for white defendants.

It appears that bail judges rely on racial stereotypes to predict which defendants will commit another crime if released, the researchers explain. In reality, some white defendants are much more likely than black defendants to get arrested again after their release, the team’s analysis suggests.

“We find suggestive evidence that this racial bias is driven by bail judges relying on inaccurate stereotypes that exaggerate the relative danger of releasing black defendants,” write the authors of the paper, David Arnold and Will Dobbie of Princeton University and Crystal S. Yang of Harvard Law School.

Generally speaking, after an arrest, defendants who seem less risky are released on their own recognizance, meaning they are free to go after promising to appear in court for upcoming proceedings, or they are released if they meet certain conditions such as paying a bail amount or posting a bail bond to guarantee their presence in court. Some defendants are not released because they cannot meet bail.

For the study, researchers examined 162,836 court cases representing 93,914 defendants in Philadelphia County from 2010 to 2014 as well as 93,417 cases from 65,944 defendants in Miami-Dade County between 2006 and 2014.

The findings are consistent with another study published in 2018 that uses machine learning techniques to show that bail judges make mistakes in predicting what a defendant would do if released. That study indicates judges make significant prediction errors for defendants of all races.

Some other key findings of this study include:

  • Racial bias is higher among bail judges in Miami-Dade than in Philadelphia.
  • Racial bias is higher among inexperienced judges and part-time bail judges. Experienced judges are better at predicting defendant behavior. The scholars find that judges in Miami who are considered to be experienced have 9.5 years of experience working in the bail system, on average. Miami judges considered to be inexperienced have an average of 2.5 years of experience.
  • “If racially biased prediction errors among inexperienced judges are an important driver of black-white disparities in pretrial detention, providing judges with increased opportunities for training or on-the-job feedback could play an important role in decreasing racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” the researchers write. “Our findings also suggest that providing judges with data-based risk assessments may also help decrease unwarranted racial disparities.”

Looking for more research on criminal courts? Check out our write-ups on criminal restitution, early release for good behavior and how defendants’ education levels could impact sentencing decisions.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this post listed the two scholars from Princeton as the study’s lead authors. In economics research journals, authors typically are listed in alphabetical order and not according to their contributions. The three researchers of this study share equal authorship.

 

 

This photo, taken by Daniel Schwen and obtained from Wikimedia Commons, is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.

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