NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
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How Common are Electoral Cycles in Criminal Sentencing?

Christian Dippel, Michael Poyker

NBER Working Paper No. 25716
Issued in March 2019, Revised in March 2020
NBER Program(s):Law and Economics, Labor Studies, Public Economics, Political Economy

Research on electoral sentencing cycles consistently shows that elected judges levy longer sentences when they are up for re-election. However, this research draws on data from a small number of states. We use newly collected sentencing data from a broader set of states to study the overall pervasiveness of sentencing cycles across U.S. states. We confirm the presence of electoral sentencing cycles in previously studied states, but find no evidence for such cycles in the two-thirds of states in our data that are newly added. In short, electoral sentencing cycles do not appear pervasive overall, and there is a lot of heterogeneity in their presence across states. This heterogeneity extends to the timing of observed cycles and to whether they are targeted at minority defendants. The presence of sentencing cycles is explained largely by variation in the observed competitiveness of judicial elections, which itself correlates only weakly with formal electoral institutions. Our findings’ relation to the broader literature on generalizeability in social science research is discussed.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25716

 
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