Media Release  

On Heels of Brown Jackson SCOTUS Nomination, Study Examines Defense Attorneys Appointed to Federal Bench

Gavel striking a sound block

Cambridge, MA— A new study by Yale political scientist Allison Harris and Harvard Kennedy School professor of public policy Maya Sen examines how judges’ previous professional experiences affect judicial outcomes. In their working paper, the authors document the effect of judges’ previous criminal justice experience on sentencing and find that judges with public defender experience are, on average, less likely to sentence defendants to longer periods of incarceration. Harris and Sen’s findings come on the heels of President Biden’s nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former federal public defender, to the Supreme Court.

Harris and Sen examined hundreds of thousands of federal sentences from 2010 to 2019. They found that criminal defendants assigned to a federal judge with previous public defender experience are less likely to be sentenced to incarceration and more likely to be sentenced to community service or probation. “Importantly, criminal defendants assigned to former defenders are in some instances also more likely to end up with shorter incarceration sentences–by about 18 months,” the authors write.

The working paper also details how federal judges with previous criminal defense experience were less likely to impose more onerous sentences regardless of whether they were appointed by a Republican and Democratic president. “Although Democrats and Republicans approach sentencing differently, the experience of being a public defender–what they learn from it–is largely the same,” says Sen.

Harris and Sen argue that increasing the proportion of federal judges with public defender experience to about a third—the current share of judges with prosecutorial experience — would lead to about 13,000 fewer incarceration sentences over a ten-year period. “Appointing more public defenders would result in fewer people going to prison and those who do go to prison serving shorter sentences, an outcome that could have a tremendous impact on the lives of incarcerated individuals and their families,” notes Sen.

About the Ash Center

The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School advances excellence in governance and strengthens democratic institutions worldwide. Through its research, education, international programs, and government innovations awards, the Center fosters creative and effective government problem solving and serves as a catalyst for addressing many of the most pressing needs of the world’s citizens.


Daniel Harsha
Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation

Sarah Grucza
Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation