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The Effects of Trial Judge Gender and Public Opinion on Criminal Sentencing Decisions

Posted by on Tuesday, November 28, 2017 in Volume 70, Volume 70, Number 6.

The Effects of Trial Judge Gender and Public Opinion on Criminal Sentencing Decisions


We explore the effects of a trial judge’s gender in criminal sentencing decisions by addressing two unsettled questions. First, do female and male trial judges sentence criminal offenders differently from one another? While numerous qualitative and quantitative scholars have examined this question, the results lack consistency. Second, are female trial judges’ sentencing practices differentially affected by public opinion compared to male judges’ behavior? Little research exists on this second question, but existing theory on how females and males make decisions and operate as judges is informative.

To provide new empirical insight into these questions, we rely on two sources of data: judge sentences stemming from Colorado trial court marijuana-related drug cases filed from 2004 to 2009 and local public opinion on marijuana from a 2006 Colorado general election initiative on whether to legalize marijuana possession. These data permit us to analyze judges’ baseline sentencing practices (pre-2006 initiative) and the effect that public opinion has on the sentences (pre- vs. post-2006 initiative). The statistical modeling indicates that while male and female judges in Colorado generally do not sentence defendants differently from one another, there is one exception. Namely, female judges are more lenient than male judges when sentencing female defendants. Our empirical results also indicate that while Colorado trial judges were responsive to local public opinion following the 2006 marijuana initiative, that responsiveness was not more potent for female judges than it was for male judges. Together, these empirical results provide important new insights into the behavior of male and female trial court judges.


Christina L. Boyd

Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Georgia

Michael J. Nelson

Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Pennsylvania State University