This is one of several joint papers by the authors on criminal justice institutions and politics; the ordering of names reflects a principle of rotation. We wish to thank the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale and the Criminal Justice Research Center at The Ohio State University (where Gordon served as assistant professor of political science in the beginning stages of this project) for their generous financial support. We also gratefully acknowledge Brandon Bartels, Kevin Eirich, and Shaun Holness for superlative research assistance and Paul Brace, Larry Baum, Laura Langer, Todd Lochner, Deborah Schildkraut, and three anonymous reviewers for valuable comments. Earlier drafts of this article were presented in seminars at Columbia, George Washington, Northwestern, NYU, Princeton, and Yale where we received additional constructive feedback. Finally, we would like to express our gratitude to the staff of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing for providing us with (and answering questions about) the sentencing data employed in this analysis.
Accountability and Coercion: Is Justice Blind when It Runs for Office?
Version of Record online: 3 MAR 2004
American Journal of Political Science
Volume 48, Issue 2, pages 247–263, April 2004
How to Cite
A. Huber, G. and Gordon, S. C. (2004), Accountability and Coercion: Is Justice Blind when It Runs for Office?. American Journal of Political Science, 48: 247–263. doi: 10.1111/j.0092-5853.2004.00068.x
- Issue online: 3 MAR 2004
- Version of Record online: 3 MAR 2004
Through their power to sentence, trial judges exercise enormous authority in the criminal justice system. In 39 American states, these judges stand periodically for reelection. Do elections degrade their impartiality? We develop a dynamic theory of sentencing and electoral control. Judges discount the future value of retaining office relative to implementing preferred sentences. Voters are largely uninformed about judicial behavior, so even the outcome of a single publicized case can be decisive in their evaluations. Further, voters are more likely to perceive instances of underpunishment than overpunishment. Our theory predicts that elected judges will consequently become more punitive as standing for reelection approaches. Using sentencing data from 22,095 Pennsylvania criminal cases in the 1990s, we find strong evidence for this effect. Additional tests confirm the validity of our theory over alternatives. For the cases we examine, we attribute at least 1,818 to 2,705 years of incarceration to the electoral dynamic.