The Heavy Costs of High Bail: Evidence from Judge Randomization

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In the United States, roughly 450,000 people are detained awaiting trial on any given day, typically because they have not posted bail. Using a large sample of criminal cases in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, we analyze the consequences of the money bail system by exploiting the variation in bail-setting tendencies among randomly assigned bail judges. Our estimates suggest that the assignment of money bail leads to a 12 percent increase in the likelihood of conviction and a 6–9 percent increase in recidivism. Our results highlight the importance of credit constraints in shaping defendant outcomes and point to important fairness considerations in the institutional design of the American money bail system.

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