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Abstract

I develop a model of plea bargaining focused on sources of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Defendants demand more trials and receive shorter sentences when the cases brought against them are weak. Defendants demand more trials but receive longer sentences when prosecutors are biased against them. Data from Chicago, IL show that black defendants demand more trials and receive shorter sentences than white defendants facing the same charges. Viewed through the lens of my model, these results suggest that criminal courts bring weaker cases against black defendants. I estimate the structural parameters of my model, and these estimated parameters also indicate that criminal courts bring weaker cases against black defendants. Further, when Chicago police file charges against a black defendant, those charges are more likely to be thrown out by the State's Attorney during preliminary felony review. All of my results are consistent with the hypothesis that cases against black defendants are weaker because police in Chicago are more likely to charge black defendants without strong evidence.

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