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.
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-