Much empirical analysis has documented racial disparities at the beginning and end stages of criminal cases. However, our understanding about the perpetuation of—and even corrections for—differential outcomes in the process remains less than complete. This Article provides a comprehensive examination of criminal dispositions using all DWI cases in North Carolina from 2001 to 2011, focusing on several major decision points in the process. Starting with pretrial hearings and culminating in sentencing results, we track differences in outcomes by race and gender. Before sentencing, significant gaps emerge in the severity of pretrial release conditions that disadvantage black and Hispanic defendants. Yet when prosecutors decide whether to pursue charges, we observe an initial correction mechanism: Hispanic men are almost two-thirds more likely to have those charges dropped relative to white men. Although few cases survive after the plea bargaining stage, a second correction mechanism arises: Hispanic men are substantially less likely to receive harsher sentences and are sent to jail for significantly less time relative to white men. The first mechanism is based, in part, on prosecutors’ reviewing the strength of the evidence, but much more on declining to invest scarce resources in the pursuit of defendants who fail to appear for trial. The second mechanism seems to follow more directly from judicial discretion to reverse decisions made by law enforcement or prosecutors. We discuss possible explanations for these novel empirical results and review methods for more precisely identifying causal mechanisms in criminal justice.

Publication Information

55 William & Mary Law Review 1365-1427 (2014)