Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Judging in Black and White

Do judges vary in their treatment of race?

That's the question investigated by three researchers (David S. Abrams, Marianne Bertrand, and Sendhil Mullainathan) who studied thousands of felony cases in Cook County, IL, initiated between 1995 and 2001. Cases were assigned to judges randomly (and the researchers did some statistical checking to confirm that).

Controlling for a wide range of variables, it turned out that race did make a difference across all judges, and, with some judges it made a very big difference. Black defendanats were more likely to be incarcerated than non-Hispanic white defendants. (This paper does not address Hispanic defendants.)

Comparable defendants had different likelihoods of incarceration depending on which judge they were assigned.

With a judge at the lenient end of the spectrum,
a black male defendant had a 45% chance of incarceration
while a white male defendant had at 35% chance of incarceration.

Facing a judge at the harsh end of the spectrum, a black male
defendant had a 68% chance of incarceration, compared with
his white counterpart's 40% chance.
There were also differences in the length of sentences imposed (blacks got longer sentences) but these differences weren't statistically significant.

The researchers did not find significant differences based on race of the judge or whether the judge had experience as a public defender.

David S. Abrams, Marianne Bertrand & Sendhil Mullainathan, Do Judges Vary in Their Treatment of Race? (Univ. of Pa. Law Sch. Inst. for Law & Econ. Research Paper No. 11-07), available at, J. Legal Studies (forthcoming). The examples about the black and white defendants are drawn from pp. 22-23.

By the way, Cook County gives a very large sample to study. "Cook County is the largest unified court system in the country, with over 2.4 million cases processed per year in both civil and criminal courts." (p. 8). For comparison, consider that all of Washington's superior courts handled a total of 752,082 cases in 2010. Caseloads of the Courts of Washington: Total Proceedings by Type of Case - 2010 Annual Report at 2.

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