Essays on Government Responses to Crime and Racial Inequality

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In this dissertation, I study government responses to crime and racial inequality to provide evidence on roots of economic and social disparities and the effectiveness of policies aimed to address those disparities.

In the second chapter, I estimate the effect of access to Food Stamps on criminal recidivism. In 1996, a federal welfare reform imposed a lifetime ban from Food Stamps on convicted drug felons. Florida modified this ban, restricting it to drug traffickers who commit their offense on or after August 23, 1996. I exploit this sharp cutoff in a regression discontinuity design and find that the ban increases recidivism among drug traffickers. The increase is driven by financially motivated crimes, suggesting that the cut in benefits causes ex-convicts to return to crime to make up for the lost transfer income.

In the third chapter, I test for racial disparities in the criminal justice system by analyzing abnormal bunching in the distribution of crack-cocaine amounts used in federal sentencing. I compare cases sentenced before and after the Fair Sentencing Act, a 2010 law that changed the 10-year mandatory minimum threshold for crack-cocaine from 50g to 280g. First, I find that after 2010, there is a sharp increase in the fraction of cases sentenced at 280g (the point that now triggers a 10-year mandatory minimum), and that this increase is disproportionately large for black and Hispanic offenders. I then explore several possible explanations for the observed racial disparities, including discrimination. I analyze data from multiple stages in the criminal justice system and find that the increased bunching for minority offenders is driven by prosecutorial discretion, specifically as used by about 20 30% of prosecutors. Moreover, the fraction of cases at 280g falls in 2013 when evidentiary standards become stricter. Finally, the racial disparity in the increase cannot be explained by differences in education, sex, age, criminal history, seized drug amount, or other elements of the crime, but it can be almost entirely explained by a measure of state-level racial animus. These results shed light on the role of prosecutorial discretion and potentially racial discrimination as causes of racial disparities in sentencing.

In the final chapter, I estimate the effect of school desegregation on long-run economic outcomes by studying a natural experiment in Jefferson County, KY. In 1975, the district, under a court order, developed a unique busing assignment plan to merge the majority-white County district and the majority-black City district. Under this plan, students were assigned to be bused to new schools (versus stay at their home school and have new students bused in) based on their race and the first letter of their last name. Using this plausibly conditional random assignment and confidential data from the US Census Bureau, I find black students assigned busing to former County schools live in better neighborhoods (e.g. neighborhoods with higher tract-level income) at adulthood than black students assigned to remain in former City schools. This effect is strongest for students bused in earlier grades and is increasing in the total number of years a student is assigned busing. Busing assignment has small to zero effect on white students. I explore the implications of white disenrollment from the district (i.e. “white flight”) by using a novel dataset of archival yearbook records. I find the effect for white students remains small even after accounting for disenrollment. These results suggest that school desegregation in this setting had positive long-run effects for black students by giving them access to better schools (e.g. schools with more capital investment, more credentialed teachers, lower drop-out rates, etc.).