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December 4, 2019

"Race and Class: A Randomized Experiment with Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new research just published in the December 2019 issue of the Journal of Empirical Studies and authored by Christopher Robertson, Shima Baradaran Baughman and Megan Wright.  Here is its abstract:

Disparities in criminal justice outcomes are well known, and prior observational research has shown correlations between the race of defendants and prosecutors’ decisions about how to charge and resolve cases.  Yet causation is questionable: other factors, including unobserved variation in case facts, may account for some of the disparity.  Disparities may also be driven by socioeconomic class differences, which are highly correlated with race.  This article presents the first blinded, randomized controlled experiment that tests for race and class effects in prosecutors’ charging decisions.

Case vignettes are manipulated between subjects in five conditions to test effcts of defendants’ race and class status.  In the control condition, race and class are omitted, which allows baseline measures for bias and pilot testing of a blinding reform.  Primary outcome variables included whether the prosecutor charged a felony, whether the prosecutor would pursue a fine or imprisonment, and the amounts thereof.  With 467 actual prosecutors participating nationwide, we found that race and class did not have detectable prejudicial effects on prosecutorial decisions.  This finding, contrary to the majority of observational studies, suggests that other causes drive known disparities in criminal justice outcomes.

December 4, 2019 at 05:44 PM | Permalink


How about the gender of defendants?

Posted by: William R. Delzell | Dec 5, 2019 9:44:48 AM

I would think experiments of this type would be hampered by the person knowing they were being scrutinized.

I would be interested in results of this type where the cases get slipped into working prosecutors normal case load so that the person couldn't know which cases were real and which not. I might even see a DA going for that as a means of making sure their assistants are doing the job right.

If the study were in fact set up that way I apologize but I am not paying to read this in order to find out whether or not that is the situation.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Dec 5, 2019 12:59:05 PM

I could see the results on gender being different because both sides of the bar approach gender in a different light than they do race or class. Under existing norms, race or class should not make a difference in charging or sentencing decisions. But, there is a lot of dispute about whether gender should play a role. And since, in part, prosecutors do respond to what judges do on open pleas or after trial, you would expect plea offers to take the views of local judges into account.

Posted by: tmm | Dec 5, 2019 1:25:49 PM

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