Panel Paper: Escaping the Long Arm of the Law: Explaining Racial Differences in Recidivism

Friday, November 8, 2019
Plaza Building: Lobby Level, Director's Row E (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sian Mughan, Arizona State University and Joanna M. Carroll, Indiana University

There is growing public concerns over the effect of the negative impacts of conditions attached to low-level criminal offenses on low income and/or minority populations. One such policy is drivers’ license suspensions for failure to pay a traffic ticket. Using a unique administrative data set and exploiting institutional features that result in as-good-as random assignment of drivers’ license suspension we use ordinary least squares and instrumental variables estimation to estimate the effect of suspension on receipt of a second ticket. We find no effect for white drivers, but an increased probability of re-offense of between 8.1 and 9.4 percent for black drivers. We investigate this result, exploiting differences in the visibility of offenses to the ticketing officer, to estimate driver behavioral adjustments by racial group. We find that receiving a ticket (as opposed to a license suspension) decreases the probability of being caught committing an offense that is highly visible to police officers (i.e. speeding), suggesting both groups drive more conservatively in response to the initial ticket. However, license suspension increases the probability of a highly visible offense on future tickets for blacks but decreases it for whites, suggesting that black drivers are not able to affect their outcomes through altering their behavior in the same way that whites are. We argue racial bias on the part of officers is the only feasible explanation. This is the first quasi-experimental the authors are aware of on the effects of drivers’ license suspension. It is also the first to offer (and test) differences in behavioral adjustments after interaction with law enforcement agents as an explanation for racial differentials in criminal justice outcomes.