Working Papers

Criminal court fees, earnings, and expenditures: A multi-state RD analysis of survey and administrative data

(joint with Carl Lieberman and Michael Mueller-Smith)

Millions of people in the United States face fines and fees in the criminal court system each year, totaling over $27 billion in overall criminal debt to-date. In this study, we leverage five distinct natural experiments in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin using regression discontinuity designs to evaluate the causal impact of such financial sanctions and user fees. We consider a range of long-term outcomes including employment, recidivism, household expenditures, and other self-reported measures of well-being, which we measure through a combination of administrative data (Internal Review Service tax records; Criminal Justice Administrative Records System) and household surveys (American Community Survey). We find consistent evidence across the range of natural experiments and subgroup analyses of precise null effects on the population, ruling out long-run impacts larger than +/-3.6% on total earnings and +/-4.7% on total recidivism. Failure to find changes in outcomes undermines popular narratives of poverty traps arising from criminal debt but argues against the use of fines and fees as a source of local revenue and as a crime control tool.

Under embargo at the U.S. Census Bureau. Please email for a copy of the paper (to be sent after embargo is lifted).

The Impact of Financial Sanctions in the U.S. Justice System: Regression Discontinuity Evidence from Michigan’s Driver Responsibility Program

(joint with Keith Finlay, Matthew Gross, and Michael Mueller-Smith)

We estimate the causal impact of financial sanctions in the U.S. criminal justice system. We utilize a regression discontinuity design and exploit two distinct natural experiments: the abrupt introduction of driver responsibility fees (DRF) in Michigan and Texas. These discontinuously imposed additional surcharges ($300–$6,000) for criminal traffic offenses. Although the policies generated almost $3 billion of debt, we find consistent evidence that the DRFs had no impact on recidivism, earnings, or romantic partners’ outcomes over the next decade. Without evidence of a general or specific deterrence effect and modest success with debt collection, we find little justification for these policies.

Download most recent version here

Probable Causation episode coming in January!

Not so Black and White: Uncovering Racial Bias from Systematically Misreported Trooper Reports

Biased highway troopers may intentionally misreport the race of the stopped motorists in order to evade detection. I develop a new model of traffic stops that highlights the incentive for biased troopers to misreport their failed minority searches as White. Applying my model to the universe of highway searches in Texas from 2010–2015, I find evidence of widespread bias that varies substantially across troopers. When misreporting became more difficult due to public scrutiny, biased troopers faced worse labor outcomes. This suggest an important role for increased accountability in data collection by law enforcement agents.

Download most recent version here

Probable Causation episode here

Works in Progress

Neighborhood Segregation and Gun Violence

(joint with Kenneth Whaley)

Disparate Fine Collection: Evidence using Chicago Parking Tickets

Using a plausibly exogenous increase in the fine for failing to purchase annual vehicle registration in 2012, colloquially known as the sticker tax, I test if Chicago police disparately enforced parking compliance across black and non-black neighborhoods from 2007 to 2017. I find that police behavior is responsive to the penalty structure of the fine and are 20 to 50 percent more likely to apply the sticker fine to black neighborhoods after the increase. This disparate enforcement is robust to employment controls and is not driven by changing compliance rates across neighborhoods. In contrast, I find that parking enforcement agents do not disparately enforce the tickets across black and non-black neighborhoods. I attribute this difference in behavior between parking enforcement agents and police officers to the lack of work evaluations based on ticketing productivity for police officers. Since police officers are not evaluated by their parking citation productivity, they do not behave as revenue-maximizing agents in the context of parking enforcement.

Currently under major revision.