The Rule of Judicial Political Affiliation in Criminal Sentencing Outcomes
38 Pages Posted: 12 Nov 2020
Date Written: September 23, 2020
Legislative efforts to bring consistency to criminal sentencing outcomes has been much discussed in academic literature and Congressional hearings alike. Despite these efforts disparate sentencing outcomes persist. Researchers have studied many variables seeking to understand these disparities but have been unable to form a consensus around the cause. Perhaps because of the lack of a firm understanding of the issue among researchers, legislative intervention at both the state and federal level has largely failed to address the issue of judicial characteristics that may drive sentencing disparities. As a result, absent from the conversation on criminal sentencing reform is empirical and anecdotal evidence about how judges make determinations within the range of outcomes specified by the legislature. New data on federal sentencing outcomes collected by Harvard researchers, however, finds a direct connection between the political party of the President who appointed the federal judge and the length of a defendant’s sentence. As the Harvard study reports, federal judges appointed by Republican presidents sentence defendants on average to three more months in prison than federal judges appointed by Democratic presidents. Republican-appointed judges in the federal system also sentence black defendants more harshly than Democratic-appointed judges.
As will be discussed in this Article, the central premise of the Harvard political sentencing study – that judicial political affiliation influences sentencing outcomes, even those that are highly guided by legislative criteria – also holds true on the state level with respect to elected, rather than appointed, judges. As we report, empirical evidence from the state of Ohio demonstrates that elected Republican judges sentence defendants to lengthier terms of incarceration than elected Democratic judges by a statistically significant margin. This evidence suggests that, rather than being entirely guided by specified statutory criteria, judges bring preexisting sentencing ideologies to the bench and make decisions with a range of sentencing outcomes based at least in part on their individual philosophies and beliefs. Based on these findings, we argue that in order to address the issue of sentencing disparities, reform efforts should take action to specifically address the behavior and motivation of individual judges.
Keywords: criminal sentencing
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