Brendan Bernicker


My research focuses on crime in the United States. Specifically, I am interested in the factors that influence how decision makers (police officers, prosecutors, judges, jurors, corrections officers, etc.) determine when and how to impose punishment. To better understand these factors, I use a mix of quantitative empirical, qualitative empirical, and normative theoretical methods.

My masters thesis takes a quantitative empirical approach to understanding factors that influence judges’ decisions to punish juvenile respondents charged with felony-leve offenses. The existing scholarship on juvenile court cases suggests that judges are influenced by a range of factors that pertain to different levels of analysis. At the case level, judge are influenced by the particular offense charged, whether that offense is against people or property, whether it involved children, drugs, guns, or sexual misconduct, and similar case-level information.

Judges may also be influenced by factors that pertain to individual juvenile respondents. Some of these factors are legitimate for judges to consider in certain contexts, such as prior criminal history, while others are illegal for judges to consider, such as race; but there are good empirical reasons to believe that judges are significantly influenced by factors that they are prohibited from considering where they are nonetheless aware of those factors when they make decisions. Finally, there is a growing literature on the influence of higher-level contextual factors, including those that pertain to courts (such as caseloads) and counties (local demographics, crime rates, public opinion, etc.).

For my masters thesis, I obtained case-level data on every juvenile court case in Massachusetts that involved a felony-level offense from 2015-2017. Using these data, I fit multi-level logistic regression models that estimate the extent to which various factors, at different levels, influence the probability that a judge will sentence a juvenile respondent to incarceration. This methodology allows me to compare the magnitudes of factors’ effects across levels of analysis, and to provide a more thorough test of existing theoretical models of juvenile punishment than can be performed at any single level of analysis. In subsequent work, I intend to use a similar design with juvenile courts in other states, and adult courts nationwide, to measure the effectiveness of procedural safeguards in minimizing the influence of legally irrelevant or prohibited factors on case decisions.

Other projects that I am currently working on include a paper that uses survey experiments to measure racial disparities in empathy for people acused of crimes and a normative theoretical paper on the ethical implications of addiction for criminal responsibility. While my research projects may seem disparate, they are connected by an underlying interest in understanding the history and operation of the modern American penal system. By pursuing this research agenda, I hope to be able to inform policymakers about ways to make our criminal justice system more fair, more equitable, and more consistent with its own expressed values.

Research Interests:

Law and Courts (particularly juvenile courts), American Politics