Does age and gender affect judges’ sentences? New study suggests nuanced answer

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Researchers who studied nearly 3,000 sentences imposed over a 16-year period in Colorado found that judges' age and gender correlated with differences in sentence length—but only for serious crimes.

Younger female judges were tougher on serious crimes than male and older female judges, the Colorado study found.

The Sept. 10 study, published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, found that, for “high harm crimes,” young female judges on average sentenced offenders to 24% more incarceration (4.9 years more) than did their male colleagues and to 25% more incarceration (5.1 years more) than did their older female colleagues.

The blog When the Abuser Goes to Work has coverage.

The researchers said they controlled for the independent effect of judicial experience to conclude that age, rather than experience, was affecting the results.

When researchers ignored age entirely, sentences were about the same between male and female judges. When researches ignored gender entirely, older judges imposed sentences that were roughly the same as younger colleagues’ sentences.

“But when we also considered harm level, we found a significant three-way interaction between harm level, judicial age and judicial gender,” the study said.

The results were based on sentences imposed after an initial trial—in Colorado cases in which judges have sentencing discretion. If probation was combined with incarceration, both were counted as the length of the sentence. Each sentence in a case was counted separately, even when running concurrently.

In Colorado, presumptive ranges of potential prison sentences are set by the legislature, and judges generally have discretion to impose a sentence within the range. Cases in which sentences were mandatory were excluded from the study data.

The study considered class 1, 2 or 3 felonies as high harm crimes.

The average age of the 285 judges in the study was 54.63 years. Judges younger than that were classified as younger judges, while those above the average were classified as older. The researchers used just two groups because smaller age groups would have reduced the statistical power of the findings.

The study authors cautioned that their findings didn’t assess other variables likely to affect sentencing, such as judges’ race, ethnicity, ideology and partisanship. They also said it’s possible that the findings would be more nuanced if they investigated whether the sentencing effects were driven by very young or very old judges.

It is also possible that only a certain type of case—such as sexual assaults or crimes against children—are driving the three-way interaction, the researchers said.

The results could have implications for choices of lawyers and prosecutors in states where each side in a case is given a one-time option to remove the assigned judge and receive a new one, according to the law review article. The results may also apply to jury selection in the handful of states that allow jurors to impose criminal sentences.

“Our results might even inform debates about judicial selection and mandatory retirement,” according to the law review article. “Those relatively young people appointed by recent administrations to the federal trial bench … may sit for a long time, but our study suggests that young male appointees will not be as tough on serious crime as their young female colleagues, and that even the women will tend to age out of their sentencing toughness.”

The authors of the study are Judge Morris B. Hoffman of Colorado’s 2nd Judicial District; Francis X. Shen, a law professor at the University of Minnesota; Vijeth Iyengar, a technical adviser at the U.S. Administration for Community Living; and Frank Krueger, a professor at George Mason University.

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