A 2018 study by the American Economic Journal discovered Republican-appointed judges impose longer sentences on Black defendants than their Democrat-appointed counterparts.
The paper, “Judicial Politics and Sentencing Decisions” by Alma Cohen and Crystal S. Yang compiled data on over 500,000 federal defendants linked to a sentencing judge. The study is based on randomly-assigned cases, which omits the idea of variable bias, or the claim that correlation does not equal causation.
The paper acknowledges that Black defendants receive significantly longer prison sentences than similarly-charged white defendants. This reality contributes to the fact that Black prisoners make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population. In addition to race, the study also mentions gender disparities. Judges consistently sentence men more severely than women.
The findings reveal that Republican-appointed judges sentence Black defendants to three more months than similar non-Black defendants compared to Democrat-appointed judges. These numbers account for approximately 65% of the baseline racial sentence gap. Additionally, it found Republican-appointed judges sentence female defendants to two fewer months than similar males than Democrat-appointed judges.
This data is especially significant because federal judges are appointed for lifetime terms.
As the paper outlines, “Today, the appointments process for lower court judges garners heightened interest, with senators regularly debating the qualification of nominees, such as whether nominees would bring with them ideological agendas or other disqualifying biases.”
Another important distinction the paper makes is that these sentencing disparities cannot be fully explained by other judge characteristics like race, gender, former prosecutorial experience, or proxies for racial bias. Most of the cases involving these racial and gender gaps included serious drug and violent offenses.
The study also finds in the years after the United States v. Booker case was decided in 2005, there was an increase in the racial gap in sentence length by judge political affiliation. United States v. Booker decided that under the Sixth Amendment, a judge could not enhance a defendant’s sentence using facts not reviewed by a jury. The researchers found, however that the racial disparities in sentencing were due to Democratic-appointed judges reducing their sentencing of black versus non-Black offenders, versus Republican-appointed judges increasing their sentencing.
The researchers estimate that if there were a 10% increase in the number of Republican-appointed judges in each court, the racial sentencing gap would also increase by 5%.
During an average four-year term, the study states, a Republican president has the potential to appoint judges to alter the composition of district courts by over 15%, which could increase the racial sentencing gap by 7.5%.