The Effects of Pre-Trial Detention on Conviction, Future Crime, and Employment: Evidence from Randomly Assigned Judges


Over 20 percent of prison and jail inmates in the United States are currently awaiting trial,
but little is known about the impact of pre-trial detention on defendants. This paper uses the
detention tendencies of quasi-randomly assigned bail judges to estimate the causal effects of
pre-trial detention on subsequent defendant outcomes. Using data from administrative court
and tax records, we find that being detained before trial significantly increases the probability of
a conviction, primarily through an increase in guilty pleas. Pre-trial detention has no detectable
effect on future crime, but decreases pre-trial crime and failures to appear in court. We also find
suggestive evidence that pre-trial detention decreases formal sector employment and the receipt
of employment- and tax-related government benefits. We argue that these results are consistent
with (i) pre-trial detention weakening defendants’ bargaining position during plea negotiations,
and (ii) a criminal conviction lowering defendants’ prospects in the formal labor market.

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