Megan Stevenson, Economist Who Studies Criminal Law, To Join Faculty

George Mason Professor Brings Insights on Bail, Pretrial Detention
Megan Stevenson

Megan Stevenson is an economist with a scholarly focus on criminal law. Photo courtesy of George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

July 28, 2020

Economist and legal scholar Megan Stevenson, whose research has informed the field of criminal law and policy, will join the University of Virginia School of Law faculty in August.

Stevenson is an assistant professor of law at George Mason University. Her insights on bail and pretrial detention have been influential, including in the federal courts.

“I got interested in bail because it seemed so problematic in so many ways,” she said.

Two of her research papers were cited by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit as part of the 2018 decision in O’Donnell v. Harris County, Texas, et al. The court reaffirmed a district court ruling that the county’s bail system for misdemeanor offenses violated due process because it favored those most able to pay.

Stevenson said it was coincidence that she had been studying the problems in that county — the third largest in the U.S. — shortly before the Fifth Circuit weighed in, and that she was happy her research helped make a difference.

“The case is one of the first strong condemnations of our monetary bail system that the courts have issued,” she said. “Condemning it both because it violates equal protection, in that it conditions your freedom on wealth, but also because it violates due process, because you’re having your liberty taken away from you on the basis of a one-minute Mickey Mouse hearing. If the judge sets bail at a level you can’t afford, this one minute hearing is effectively a pretrial detention order.”

The Downstream Consequence of Misdemeanor Pretrial Detention,” co-authored with Paul Heaton and Sandra Mayson, was her main paper referenced. It found that “detaining people pretrial results in a large likelihood that people will plead guilty,” Stevenson said. That inducement is a recipe for widespread adjudication error, the paper contends.

“If you’re in jail and the prosecutor says if you plead guilty you can go home, people will take it,” she said.

Stevenson added that those who can’t afford bail will have greater trouble putting together their defense.

“The system is sadly discriminatory based on wealth, because if you can afford bail, you don’t have this pressure,” she said.

Her other paper referenced by the court, “Distortion of Justice: How the Inability to Pay Bail Affects Case Outcomes,” had similar conclusions and won the 2019 Oliver E. Williamson Prize for best article from the Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization. The research focused on a different locality — one in Philadelphia.

More recently, Stevenson has returned her focus to Philadelphia in “Bail, Jail and Pretrial Misconduct: The Influence of Prosecutors,” co-authored with Aurelie Ouss. The paper examines bail reform measures under District Attorney Larry Krasner, who is a leader in the progressive prosecution movement. Krasner’s office no longer requires bail to be set for misdemeanor offenses, for example, although a judge still has the final say. Stevenson found that such discretionary measures have had a positive impact, while not resulting in spikes in crime or significant increases in defendants failing to show up in court.

At UVA, Stevenson will teach Criminal Law as well as courses on evidence-based criminal justice reform and statistics for lawyers.

In teaching statistics, “I share what I think is so fascinating about it, but in a way that’s not too technical,” she said.

Before joining George Mason, where she teaches Law & Economics and Criminal Law, Stevenson was a fellow at the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Dean Risa Goluboff said the scholar will be a welcome addition to the UVA Law faculty.

“Megan Stevenson is doing exciting work in criminal justice — using the latest empirical methods and informed by her expertise as an economist,” Goluboff said. “Her scholarship is both rigorous and accessible, and it offers real purchase on real-world problems. Criminal justice is an area of major strength for the Law School, and we are delighted that Megan’s perspective will add yet more depth and breadth.”

Follow Megan Stevenson on Twitter at @MeganTStevenson.

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