Judges' race and judicial decision making: Do black judges sentence differently?

Darrell Steffensmeier, Chester L. Britt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

104 Scopus citations


Objective. This study examines the effects of race of judge on sentencing decisions. Do black judges sentence offenders more severely/leniently than white judges, and do they use similar/different criteria in their decision making? Methods. Data are derived from two sources: (1) sentencing outcomes in Pennsylvania from 1991 to 1994 and (2) archival data on judge characteristics, such as race and time on the bench. Logit models were used to assess the effects of judges' race on the in/out or incarcerative decision, and ordinary least squares models were used to assess the effects on the length-of-term decision. Results. Results showed that black and white judges weighted case and offender information in similar ways when making punishment decisions, although black judges were more likely to sentence both black and white offenders to prison. Conclusion. The greater harshness of black judges suggests they may behave as "tokens" or that they have greater sensitivity to the costs of crime, in particular, within black communities. Although there were small race-of-judge effects, there also was much similarity in sentencing practices - suggesting that the job, not so much the individual, apparently makes the "judge.".

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)749-764
Number of pages16
JournalSocial Science Quarterly
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2001

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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