How Judges’ Professional Experience Impacts Case Outcomes: An Examination of Public Defenders and Criminal Sentencing
How do judges’ previous professional experiences affect outcomes? We investigate the question by documenting the effect of judges’ previous criminal justice experience on sentencing. Leveraging millions of federal sentences from 2010 to 2019, we find that defendants with charges assigned to a judge with criminal defense experience are, on average, less likely to be incarcerated. In some cases, their sentences are also shorter, which we show is partially attributable to former defenders being less likely to give out extremely long sentences. We find some corresponding effects for prosecutorial experience, but they are less consistent overall. The findings make two key contributions. First, they contribute to growing evidence of disparities in the criminal legal system, particularly those associated with judge characteristics. Second, the findings are some of the first showing the impact of judges’ previous professional experience (as opposed to demographic characteristics) on decision-making. Both have implications for how political actors can influence policy through judicial selection on the basis of professional experience.
Maya Sen is a political scientist and Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Sen writes on issues involving the political economy of U.S. race relations, law and politics, and statistical methods. Her research has been published in journals such as the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, and the Journal of Politics, and has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and other outlets. She has testified before Congress and presidential commissions.
Discussant: Jonathan Kastellec, Associate Professor of Politics at Princeton University