Panel Paper: Racial Discrimination By Prosecutors: Evidence from Random Assignment

Saturday, November 10, 2018
8228 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

CarlyWill Sloan, Texas A&M University

Racial disparities in criminal justice outcomes are the subject of much public interest. As prosecutors play a key role in many case outcomes, they are vital in ensuring a fair trial. Even though prosecutors can practice wide discretion in case decisions, little causal research considers potential prosecutor racial bias. This paper investigates the extent to which criminal case outcomes are affected by similarity in race of the defendant and prosecutor.

The primary difficulty in testing whether assignment of own-race prosecutors alters case outcomes is the non-random matching of prosecutors and defendants, along with the common practice of passing a case between different prosecutor between intake and disposition. To overcome these endogeneity concerns, I exploit the random assignment of defendants to prosecutors in New York County. In New York County, cases are also primarily processed vertically, meaning only one prosecutor works on the case from beginning to end. I identify effects using detailed administrative data from the New York County’s District Attorney’s Office on the case assignment process, as well as dismissal, conviction and sentencing decisions.

Preliminary findings indicate that assignment of own-race prosecutors results in significantly less convictions for property crimes, though I find no evidence of racial discrimination for other types of crimes. Additional results suggest that differences in conviction could be driven by increased dismissal of cases early in the criminal justice process by own-race prosecutors.

The results of this paper have important implications for prosecutors and defendants. First, my results suggest that despite the focus in prosecutor training on fairness, and equity, in-group bias can persist. Moreover, my results likely serve as a lower bound for estimating racial bias, as the New York County District Attorney is known for implementing many progressive reforms and actively attempting to combat racial discrepancies in criminal justice outcomes. Second, increased guilty dispositions and therefore criminal records often lead to worsened labor market outcomes and long-term ramifications for defendants. Together these implications suggest a further need for prosecutor training and awareness of potential racial biases.

Full Paper: