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Report reveals racial bias in bail hearings

Both black and white judges in Pennsylvania and Florida treat African American defendants unfairly according to a study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Researchers from Harvard Law School and Princeton University studied cases involving 93,914 defendants who appeared before bail judges in Philadelphia and 65,944 defendants who had their bail hearings in Miami, and they found that the average bail set for black defendants was $7,281 higher than the average bail set for white defendants.

The researchers also discovered that many black and white bail judges base their decisions on racial stereotypes and order African American defendants remanded because they fear that they will commit more crimes if released. The findings suggest that racial profiling and bias during bail hearings is more common among in Florida than it is in Pennsylvania, and the data also reveals that bail judges who lack experience are more likely to treat African American defendants unfairly.

Another study dealing with bias during bail hearings reached broadly similar conclusions. In that study, researchers compared the rulings made by bail judges with suggestions made by an algorithm. The algorithm was used to remove bias from the decision-making process, and the results of the experiment suggest that jailing rates could be lowered by more than 40 percent with no corresponding increase in crime.

Defendants in U.S. criminal proceedings are presumed innocent, and experienced criminal defense attorneys may advocate fiercely on behalf of their clients during bail hearings. Bail is denied when defendants pose a threat to the public or are considered a flight risk. Attorneys could argue that their clients do not meet either of these classifications by pointing out their long-standing ties to the community, their gainful full-time employment, their sincere remorse and the support they receive from their friends, colleagues and family members.

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