Elected Judges Hand Down Tougher Sentences Right before an Election, Study Finds

Article excerpt

Judges who are elected rather than appointed hand down more severe sentences in the months proceeding an election than they do earlier in their terms, according to a recent study.

The study wasn't designed to determine how aware the judges were that they were taking a tougher view about sentencing right before they were up for re-election. As I've noted here before, other research has suggested that judges' rulings can be influenced by something as non-rational (and unconscious) as how hungry they are.

This new study offers even more evidence of the capriciousness of sentencing in criminal cases. In this instance, how many months or years a person is incarcerated may come down to when in a political cycle he or she appears before a judge.

Gathering the data

For the study, Carlos Berdejo, an associate professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, and Noam Yuchtman, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed the sentences handed down from July 1995 through December 2006 by 265 full-time Superior Court judges in Washington State. Those judges are voted in or out in non-partisan elections held every four years. The study, therefore, covered three elections: 1996, 2000 and 2004.

The researchers focused their analysis on felony sentences for criminal cases (murder, assault, rape and robbery), which composed 6.7 percent (18,447) of the 276,119 cases heard by the judges during the period studied. The reason, explain Berdefjo and Yuchtman, is that such high-profile cases tend to receive considerable media attention, which raises the stakes for everybody involved, including judges up for re-election.

The two researchers controlled for a variety of factors, including the defendant's age, gender, race and prior criminal history, and such confounding variables as the political cycles of other officials who might have had some involvement in the cases and whether the sentence resulted from a plea bargain.

Study's findings

After crunching all the data, Berdefjo and Yuchtman found that in the three months leading up to the judges' re-election bids they handed out sentences that were as much as 10 percent longer on average than the sentences they gave early in their terms. Furthermore, the severity of the sentences immediately fell after the election -- only to rise four years later as they were once again approaching re-election.

Yet, perhaps most telling, no increase in the average severity of sentences occurred among those judges who were not seeking re- election. …