Today’s “Hanging Judge” May Be Young And Female

A new study shows that younger female judges are tougher on serious crime than their male and older female colleagues.

Researchers found that, on average, younger female judges (under age 56.4) sentenced defendants convicted of “high harm” crimes to 24% more incarceration (4.9 years more) than did their male colleagues, and to 25% more incarceration (5.1years more) than did their older female colleagues.

The study, published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, is entitled, “The Intersectionality of Age and Gender on the Bench: Are Younger Female Judges Harsher With Serious Crimes?” The lead author is Morris B. Hoffman, a Colorado judge and member of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience.

Although the title poses a question, the study concludes that younger female judges are significantly harsher in sentencing “high harm” crimes or serious felonies.

The researchers found that age, gender and the degree of harm of the crime standing alone did not account for the difference:  “Only when we considered age, gender, and harm levels together did we see these three factors impact—and impact substantially—the sentences imposed by these judges,”  Interestingly, length of service on the bench was not a factor.

The study offers no explanation for the findings, though one possible explanation is that younger women tend to be more punitive than men when it comes to men-on-women violence and crimes against children.

The researchers suggest that judicial education “could go a long way toward closing this age-gender sentencing gap. Young female judges apprised of this trend … may become less harsh with those crimes just knowing that they are outliers compared to their male and older female colleagues.” But, they add, there is also the risk that other judges may reassess their leniency and become more harsh.

The research contributes to a growing body of work, some conflicting, on the impact of sentencing on judges’ ethnicity, gender and political orientation.  However, the researchers note there is scant research on the impact of age on the judiciary. This is surprising given that the average age of a sitting federal judge is 69, older than at any time in U.S. history, and the average age of state judges is about 60.

The researchers say more younger women are being appointed to the bench. The U.S. Senate in 2019 confirmed the nomination of Allison Jones Rushing, 36, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. She is the nation’s youngest federal judge.

The two-year study examines a database of 2,995 individual state criminal sentences imposed in Colorado, covering 183 different types of crimes and 285 different judges, 189 male and 105 female, over a 16-year span.

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