International Journal on Responsibility


State court judges are influenced by a myriad of factors during criminal case processing. To study the influence of prior legal background on judicial decision-making at sentencing, we performed in-depth qualitative interviews of 39 trial court judges presiding over criminal cases in a Northeastern U.S. state. We find that judges are influenced by their former legal experiences and most judges are cognizant of this influence. While certain sentencing considerations are prioritized for almost all judges (e.g., criminal history, seriousness of the offense), prioritization and processing of many other sentencing criteria are correlated with prior legal background. Former defense attorneys tend to focus on defendants’ mental health, social upbringing, and family support, while prosecutors focus on victim impact and violence, among other considerations. Our results highlight the need for diversity on the bench in criminal courts coupled with increased training and inter-courtroom communications.

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