HOW JUDICIAL ELECTIONS AFFECT CRIMINAL SENTENCING

My previous post outlined the challenges to the impartiality and integrity of state judges due to the growing spending on judicial elections. It highlighted civil cases where campaign money has the potential to influence (or appear to influence) judges’ decisions and to create conflicts of interest.

In criminal cases, there is statistical evidence that the pressures of election campaigns and negative ads affect judicial decision-making. When facing imminent re-election, judges are more likely to impose longer sentences, affirm death sentences, and change jury sentences of life in prison to death sentences.

As spending has grown in judicial elections, the use of television advertising has increased dramatically. A study of 15 years of television ads in state supreme court elections found that increasingly the ads focused on the candidate’s handling of criminal cases. In 2013-14, a record 56% of ads either attacked candidates for being “soft on crime” or touted them as being “tough on crime.” These types of ads tend to focus voters’ attention on criminal cases, often in a misleading, overly simplified, and emotional way. [1] The need for judges to be viewed as “tough on crime” to win an election has contributed to the problems of over-incarceration and disproportionately harsh sentencing of Blacks and Hispanics.

The study also compared judicial decisions of elected and non-elected (i.e., appointed) judges. And it looked at judges’ decisions in terms of their proximity to an election. It found that:

  • Appointed judges reversed death sentences roughly twice as often (26% of the time) as judges who ran in an election. Judges with contested elections reversed death sentences only 11% of the time and judges with uncontested elections reversed them 15% of the time.
  • In Alabama, judges were more likely to override jury sentences of life in prison and instead impose a death sentence in election years.
  • In Pennsylvania and Washington, judges sentenced those convicted of serious felonies to longer sentences when they were closer to an election.
  • The greater the use of TV ads in an election, the less likely judges were to rule in favor of a criminal defendant.

In summary, judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial criminal justice that is free from the influence of elections and campaign ads. The rapid increase in spending on judicial campaigns, including the unlimited spending by outside groups and individuals, has exacerbated the challenges to judicial fairness and integrity.

[1]       Berry, K., 12/2/15, “How judicial elections impact criminal cases,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/how-judicial-elections-impact-criminal-cases)

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