Study Finds Judges Are Harsher as Election Day Approaches

By Vestal, Shawn | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), December 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

Study Finds Judges Are Harsher as Election Day Approaches


Vestal, Shawn, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


If you have to be hauled before a judge for sentencing, try to schedule it after an election.

New research shows that Washington judges are more likely to throw the book at criminals in the weeks before they're in an election, suggesting that they respond, consciously or not, to the public's strong preference for tough sentences.

The study examined criminal sentencings by Washington state Superior Court judges between 1995 and 2006 and found that sentences were about 10 percent longer when judges were nearing an election or crucial political cycle than afterward. The number of sentences above the standard range rose by 50 percent.

"(T)he most commonly used method to retain judges - nonpartisan elections - affects judges' sentencing behavior, resulting in different sentences for identical crimes across a judge's political cycle," according to the paper published by Carlos Berdejo of Loyola Law School and Noam Yuchtman of University of California-Berkeley.

"We cannot say whether social welfare would increase or decrease if judges were appointed or if judicial discretion were more ... but we can quite definitively say that sentencing patterns would differ, and that the variation in sentencing solely due to political pressure would be diminished."

As with any research, the findings come with a couple of important caveats. Critically, the sentencings analyzed almost all came before the institution of more rigid statewide sentencing guidelines, which limited a judge's discretion in giving tougher- than-usual sentences. In fact, the pattern of judicial rulings since 2004 presents an opportunity for researchers to delve further into the question: Did limiting judicial discretion in Washington result in more even-handed sentencing?

Also, the research doesn't shine any light on which sentences - the longer ones during election seasons or the shorter ones in between - were the most just.

"There is this unequal sentencing," Yuchtman said in an interview this week. "But at the same time, we don't really know when the sentencing is right and when the sentencing is wrong."

The subject of judicial elections pits several values against each other: judicial independence, equal justice and accountability for public officials. Concerns over judges and the influence of political pressures have been expressed for years - former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is a prominent critic of judicial elections. But quantifying the relationship between electoral pressures and sentencing decisions is difficult. …

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