This is Justice? Judges Seeking Reelection More Likely to Hand Out Harsh Sentences

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This is Justice? Judges Seeking Reelection More Likely to Hand Out Harsh Sentences

'Proximity to re-election made judges more likely to impose longer sentences, affirm death sentences, and even override sentences of life imprisonment to impose the death penalty,' new study finds

"The research is clear," said Kate Berry, counsel in the Brennan Center's Democracy Program and author of the report. "Judges are more likely to hand out harsh sentences, including death, the closer they get to a re-election or retention election campaign."

"The research is clear," said Kate Berry, counsel in the Brennan Center's Democracy Program and author of the report. "Judges are more likely to hand out harsh sentences, including death, the closer they get to a re-election or retention election campaign." (Photo: Thomas  Hawk/flickr/cc)

Criminal judges are imposing harsher punishments on defendants—including death and lifetime sentences—in attempt to bolster their reelection bids, a disturbing new study by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law reveals.

The researchers reviewed 10 empirical investigations into the impact that judicial election has on outcomes for defendants. "These studies, conducted across states, court levels, and type of elections, all found that proximity to re-election made judges more likely to impose longer sentences, affirm death sentences, and even override sentences of life imprisonment to impose the death penalty," a summary of the report states.

"The research is clear," said Kate Berry, counsel in the Brennan Center's Democracy Program and author of the report, entitled How Judicial Elections Impact Criminal Cases. "Judges are more likely to hand out harsh sentences, including death, the closer they get to a re-election or retention election campaign."

In addition, Berry analyzed 15 years of data about television advertising in state supreme court races and found that such promotion is becoming increasingly impactful and costly—and skews towards "tough on crime" rhetoric.

These ads—and the elections themselves—correlate with harsher outcomes for defendants, as illustrated in the following key findings quoted from the report:

  • The more frequently television ads air during an election, the less likely state supreme court justices are, on average, to rule in favor of criminal defendants.
  • Trial judges in Pennsylvania and Washington sentenced defendants convicted of serious felonies to longer sentences the closer they were to re-election.
  • In states that retain judges through elections, the more supportive the public was of capital punishment, the more likely appellate judges were to affirm death sentences.
  • In the 37 states that heard capital cases over the last 15 years, appointed judges reversed death sentences 26 percent of the time, judges facing retention elections reversed 15 percent of the time, and judges facing competitive elections reversed 11 percent of the time.
  • Trial judges in Alabama overrode jury verdicts sentencing criminal defendants to life to instead impose death sentences more often in election years.
"As long as judges worry about what the next 30-second campaign ad will look like, there is a risk that re-election pressures will continue to impact their decision-making," Berry added. "This threatens the promise of fair and impartial justice in America."
 
Berry notes that numerous lives hang in the balance.
 
"State courts adjudicate the vast majority of criminal cases," the report reads. "Nearly all felony convictions—94 percent—occur in state courts, including 99 percent of rape cases and 98 percent of murder cases. The arbiters of these cases, state court judges, are mainly elected. Nationwide, 87 percent of state judges face elections, which occur in 39 states."
 
With 2.23 million people currently held in U.S. prisons and jails, America is by far the biggest jailer in the world—accounting for only 5 percent of the global population but 25 percent of the number of people incarcerated.
 
Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color and has been called a key "civil rights issue of our time."

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