Research / BFI Working PaperNov 08, 2022

Heterogeneous Impacts of Sentencing Decisions

Andrew Jordan, Ezra Karger, Derek Neal

We examine 70,581 felony court cases filed in Chicago, IL, from 1990–2007. We exploit case randomization to assess the impact of judge assignment and sentencing decisions on the arrival of new charges. We find that, in marginal cases, incarceration creates large and lasting reductions in recidivism among first offenders. Yet, among marginal repeat offenders, incarceration creates only short-run incapacitation effects and no lasting reductions in the incidence of new felony charges. These treatment-impact differences inform ongoing legal debates concerning the merits of sentencing rules that recommend leniency for first offenders while encouraging or mandating incarceration sentences for many repeat offenders. We show that methods that fail to estimate separate outcome equations for first versus repeat offenders or fail to model judge-specific sentencing tendencies separately for cases involving first versus repeat offenders produce misleading results for first offenders.

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