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Racial bias often plays a role in bail decisions

Judges in Michigan and around the country set bail to ensure that criminal defendants will appear to face trial, and remand is generally reserved for individuals who are considered a flight risk or could pose a danger to the general public. These decisions should be based on the character of the defendant and the nature of the crimes they are charged with, but a study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics suggests that judges are often influenced by racial bias and unfounded stereotypes.

A team of researchers studied cases involving more than 150,000 criminal defendants who had bail hearings in Philadelphia or Miami between 2006 and 2014, and they found that white defendants were generally treated far more leniently. The study, which was published on May 30, reveals that the average bail set for black defendants was $7,281 higher than it was for white defendants and black defendants were 2.4 percentage points more likely to be kept in custody.

According to the research team, judges treated black defendants more harshly because they believed stereotypes about the dangers of releasing them back into the community. However, the data suggests that bail judges become less likely to make decisions based on bias or stereotypes as they gain experience. After studying 256,253 criminal cases, the researchers concluded that data-based risk assessments would be a valuable tool for inexperienced judges.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may advocate on behalf of their clients during bail hearings by informing judges about their deep ties to the community, their sincere remorse and the support they can expect to receive from their family members and friends. Attorneys could also seek to revisit the issue of bail when new evidence emerges.

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