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.
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.