Christopher Robertson (Arizona), Shima Baradaran Baughman (Utah) and Meghan Wright (Penn State)
January 1, 2014 through March 1, 2020
In the field
Criminal Law; Criminal Justice
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 effects 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.
March 18, 2020