A recent study could help Americans better understand how federal judges' decision-making affects the judicial system. In a Harvard study titled Judicial Politics and Sentencing Decisions, Harvard law professors Alma Cohen and Crystal S. Yang reported that, on average, Republican-appointed federal judges handed black defendants longer sentences. Democrat-appointed federal judges, on the other hand, were tougher on women.
"Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants to three more months than similar non-blacks and female defendants to two fewer months than similar males compared with Democratic-appointed judges," Cohen and Yang wrote in their study. "These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion."
With the help of the study, legal experts may be able to point how federal judges ultimately shape the United States' justice system given their own personal bias. The authors also give a caveat in their study: "The precise reasons why these disparities by political affiliation exist remain unknown and we caution that our results cannot speak to whether the sentences imposed by Republican- or Democratic-appointed judges are warranted or 'right.'"
Still, they added that their conclusion suggested "that Republican- and Democratic-appointed judges treat defendants differently on the basis of their race and gender given that we observe robust disparities despite the random assignment of cases to judges within the same court."
Douglas A. Berman, a professor of law at the Ohio State University, praised Cohen and Yang's study for its academic rigor and "amazing new empirical research" while speaking with the New York Times recently. The law professor said, "It’s an extraordinarily important contribution to our statistical understanding of sentencing decision-making in federal courts over the last two decades."
Cohen and Yang wrote that the legal quality of a sentence — meaning, for instance, whether the sentence was objective — depended on how experienced the federal judge was. This became more evident for the authors as they studied drug and violence related cases. Cohen and Yang wrote, "We find that racial and gender gaps in sentencing are larger among less experienced judges, diminishing with more experience on the bench."
While referring to the different regions of the United States, the authors there were "larger racial and gender gaps among judges who serve in courts from states with higher racial bias" which, they noted, "are disproportionately located in the South."
Time and again, studies have shown how states with harsher penalties tend to have higher incarceration rates — this phenomenon seems most pronounced in Southern states like Florida, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas. In the case of Louisiana, the Sugar State's incarceration rate is so high that it's known as "the world's prison capital."
The study also brings up how America's incarceration rate is affected by the country's federal judges. The authors wrote that "the appointment of federal judges can have profound distributional effects on the criminal justice system, in particular because the federal criminal justice system is the source of the largest and fastest growing prison population, with federal judges making tens of thousands of sentencing decisions a year."
Under a typical four-year Republican presidency, the authors wrote, "a president has the potential to alter the partisan composition of the district courts by over 15 percentage points, potentially increasing the racial and gender sentencing gap by 7.5 and 3 percent, respectively." Yang and Cohen noted this concern and added that President Donald Trump could potentially exacerbate the issue of harsh sentencing practices by not submitting his judicial nominations to the American Bar Association for evaluation.
Cohen and Yang's study provides an in-depth look into the American justice system and how judicial politics mould the country's system of accountability and equality. By delving deep into the sentencing methods of 1,423 federal judges from 1999 to 2015 and researching data on more than 500,000 federal defendants, the Harvard law professors have provided their readers with an incisive portrait of just how fair — or not — American federal judges can be.