Do Private Prisons Affect Criminal Sentencing?

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Using a newly constructed complete monthly panel of private and public state prisons, we ask whether the presence of private prisons impacts state judges’ sentencing decisions. We employ two identification strategies: a difference-in-differences strategy that compares only court pairs that straddle state borders and an event study using the full data. We find that the opening of a private prison has a small but statistically significant and robust effect on sentence length, while the opening of a public prison does not. The effect is entirely driven by changes in sentencing in the first 2 months after prison openings. The combined evidence appears inconsistent with the hypothesis that private prisons may directly influence judges; instead, a simple salience explanation may be the most plausible.

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