Distortion of Justice: How the Inability to Pay Bail Affects Case Outcomes


This paper uses a natural experiment to analyze whether incarceration during the pretrial period affects case outcomes. In Philadelphia, defendants randomly receive bail magistrates who differ widely in their propensity to set bail at affordable levels. Using magistrate leniency as an instrument, I find that pretrial detention leads to a 13% increase in the likelihood of being convicted, an effect largely explained by an increase in guilty pleas among defendants who otherwise would have been acquitted or had their charges dropped. I find also that pretrial detention leads to a 42% increase in the length of the incarceration sentence and a 41% increase in the amount of non-bail court fees owed. This latter finding contributes to a growing literature on fines-and-fees in criminal justice, and suggests that the use of money bail contributes to a ‘poverty-trap’: those who are unable to pay bail wind up accruing more court debt.