Crime and Punishment

Judges toughen up before elections

Assistant Professor Noam Yuchtman

Judges who are elected, rather than appointed, hand down more severe criminal sentences--as much as 10 percent longer--in the last three months before an election compared with the beginning of their terms, according to a new article co-authored by Assistant Professor Noam Yuchtman.

"Our findings show us how political pressure can distort the sentencing process and can lead to starkly different sentences for similar criminals sentenced at different times," says Yuchtman, whose article is forthcoming in the Review of Economics and Statistics.

The study examined the felony sentences of 265 full-time superior court judges between July 1995 and December 2006 in the state of Washington, covering three elections in 1996, 2000, and 2004. The authors focused on the most high-profile crimes such as murder, assault, rape, and robbery, which represent 6.7 percent of 18,447 sentences conferred.

Yuchtman found sentence lengths increase at the end of judges' political cycles, then sharply fall when their next term begins, only to rise again as their next election approaches. Judges only increased the severity of their sentences at the end of a political cycle when they were facing re-election; judges not seeking re-election did not issue more severe sentences at the end of their terms.

Given that most judges are re-elected and don't even face competition at the polls, the findings suggest just the threat of political competition can affect behavior. While Yuchtman says he cannot predict whether society would benefit from appointed-only judges, the results demonstrate sentencing patterns would differ.

"When you tell people in other countries that some American judges are elected, they are often shocked. Maybe they're right: We don't like to think of judges as being influenced by external pressure," Yuchtman says. "On the other hand, our results suggest that elections do make judges feel accountable. This is a simple but important tradeoff."


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