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Racial bias could be common in bail decisions

Black defendants in New York and across the country may face an unfair hearing when they go before bail judges, especially if the results of a recent study reflect a national trend. The study, conducted by Princeton and Harvard researchers, examined the decision-making of bail judges in the Miami and Philadelphia areas through a racial lens. The study noted that black defendants were less likely to receive bail, more likely to face pretrial detention and more likely to pay larger bail amounts than white defendants.

Pretrial detention can have a major impact on the outcome of a criminal trial, especially as the appearance of a person coming from jail rather than entering the court as a free person can easily influence perceptions of guilt on a subconscious level. The added stress of remaining in jail and separated from home and family can also make trial preparation more difficult for people detained before their case is heard. This means that bail decisions can have an ongoing effect on the likelihood of a defendant's conviction.

The study found that judges were 2.4 percentage points more likely to keep black defendants in jail before their next hearings. In addition, when black defendants did receive bail, the average amount required from black defendants was $7,281 higher than from white defendants. The results back up prior studies and research indicating that bail judges can make poor decisions when speculating about which defendants are likely to commit crimes if released on bail. Both black and white judges' decisions reflected this pattern of racial bias.

Avoiding pretrial detention and receiving bail can be an important first step in a criminal case. A criminal defense lawyer may work for his or her clients to be awarded bail as part of a defense strategy that challenges police and prosecution evidence and narratives.

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