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May 4, 2011

Two notable new empirical pieces on sentencing realities via SSRN

Recently posted on SSRN are these two very different pieces making very different empirical claims about sentencing realities:

A Test of Racial Bias in Capital Sentencing by Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara

Abstract: This paper proposes a test of racial bias in capital sentencing based upon patterns of judicial errors in lower courts. We model the behavior of the trial court as minimizing a weighted sum of the probability of sentencing an innocent and that of letting a guilty defendant free. We define racial bias as a situation where the relative weight on the two types of errors is a function of defendant and/or victim race. The key prediction of the model is that if the court is unbiased, ex post the error rate should be independent of the combination of defendant and victim race. We test this prediction using an original dataset that contains the the race of the defendant and of the victim(s) for all capital appeals that became final between 1973 and 1995. We find robust evidence of bias against minority defendants who killed white victims: in Direct Appeal and Habeas Corpus the probability of error in these cases is 3 and 9 percentage points higher, respectively, than for minority defendants who killed minority victims.

Estimating the Deterrent Effect of Incarceration Using Sentencing Enhancements by David Abrams

Abstract:  Increasing criminal sanctions may reduce crime through two primary mechanisms: deterrence and incapacitation. Disentangling their effects is crucial, since each mechanism has different implications for optimal policy setting. I use the introduction of state add-on gun laws, which enhance sentences for defendants possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony, to isolate the deterrent effect of incarceration. Defendants subject to add-ons would be incarcerated in the absence of the law change, so any short-term impact on crime can be attributed solely to deterrence. Using cross-state variation in the timing of law passage dates, I find that the average add-on gun law results in a roughly 5 percent decline in gun robberies within the first three years. This result is robust to a number of specification tests and does not appear to be associated with large spillovers to other types of crime.

May 4, 2011 at 04:49 PM | Permalink


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"The key prediction of the model is that if the court is unbiased, ex post the error rate should be independent of the combination of defendant and victim race."

An alternative explanation for a differential in reversal rate is that some courts bend over backwards to find a reversible error in black perpetrator-white victim cases.

Reversal rate is not necessarily error rate. A study that assumes a grant of relief represents an actual reversible error, especially in federal circuits divisible by three, begins with a flawed assumption.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | May 5, 2011 11:48:59 AM

I didn't read the Alesina/La Ferrara study. Anyone know whether they controlled for "knew the victim/was a stranger to the victim" from their consideration of whether race drove the outcome? My suspicion is that death sentences are more common when the victim was a stranger or relative stranger to the defendant, and I'll bet that the percentage of cross-racial killings that fit that description is at least slightly/somewhat higher than the percentage of same-race killings.

Posted by: guest | May 5, 2011 5:04:52 PM

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