Doctoral Dissertation Research in Economics: Individual, Family and Community Impacts of Criminal Sentencing


Cristian Pop-Eleches
Professor of International and Public Affairs
Michael Mueller-Smith
Assistant Professor, University of Michigan


Over the past 30 years, the incarcerated population in the United States has grown by close to 300 percent. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2009, 7.2 million adults in the United States, or 1 out of every 31 adults, were under "correctional supervision," a status that includes probation and parole in addition to incarceration. The wide reach of corrections activity translates into roughly $51.7 billion dollars or 7.4 percent of state budgets in fiscal year 2011. Despite the size of this social program in the United States, little reliable evidence exists to quantify the costs and benefits of incarceration and justify its widespread use.

This project seeks to help address this problem through estimating the impacts of criminal sentencing at the individual, family and community level using new data from the United States. Original data collection efforts by the researchers have created a new empirical dataset comprising 30 years of criminal court cases from Harris County, Texas. It includes over 2.7 million distinct cases and 1.1 million unique defendants. Defendants can be followed over time in the court record data, allowing the research to consider affects on recidivism and escalation in criminal behavior.

In addition, unique data sharing agreements with local county agencies will allow the criminal court data to be linked with administrative records concerning defendants' labor market activity, marital behavior, family formation, children's educational attainment, and neighborhood arrest records. Linking criminal sentencing to a variety of lifecycle behavior and intergenerational outcomes will generate an unprecedented dataset.

To surmount the challenge of omitted variables bias, the research will leverage a source of plausibly exogenous variation: random assignment of criminal court cases to judges. As criminal charges are filed against defendants, cases are randomly assigned to courtrooms in an effort to maintain balanced caseloads between the judges. The judges in the Harris County criminal court system then hold significant discretion in both the day-to-day operations of their courtrooms as well as the precise sentences delivered to defendants found guilty of a crime. Due to the combination of randomization and discretion, some variation in the sentencing outcome for defendants is due to random chance. This research will seek to isolate that degree of sentencing variation in order to make causal statements regarding the impact of criminal sentencing.