November 15, 2018

ACS Report: Is Politicized Judicial Selection A Roadblock to Criminal Justice Reform?

Washington, D.C. — Today, the American Constitution Society (ACS) released the findings of 'Roadblock to Reform,' a series of case studies conducted by researchers Megan T. Stevenson and Jennifer L. Doleac that demonstrate the negative impact the process of electing judges has on criminal justice reform.

‘Roadblock to Reform’ examines how state judges in Kentucky and Virginia use state-adopted risk-assessment tools—an increasingly common criminal justice reform tool—to inform their decisions about pre-trial detention and sentencing. Both states were early adopters of such reforms and use judicial selection methods that expose judges to political pressure (elections, in Kentucky; legislative appointment, in Virginia). The report’s findings indicate that these professional vulnerabilities may incentivize judges to adopt a "tough on crime" approach that can undermine reform methods, including risk-assessment tools.

"Politicized judicial selection is a tremendous obstacle to criminal justice reform," says ACS President Caroline Fredrickson. "Risk assessments remain controversial within the criminal justice reform community, but are becoming more common. The larger issue is when politics undermines any attempt at modest criminal justice reforms that were designed to be structurally achievable. ACS’ report makes it clear that fair and impartial courts are a key part of any kind of reform."

Key findings from the report:

  • In Kentucky, the pretrial release rate among low and moderate risk defendants would have increased by 37 percentage points, if the state mandated risk assessment. Instead, it increased by only four percentage points: from 63% to 67%.
  • When it comes to releasing defendants with low or moderate risk assessment without bail, the median judge in Kentucky overrules risk assessment’s presumptive default roughly 2/3 times.
  • The median judge in Virginia follows the risk assessment determination for approximately 40% defendants.

View the full report here.

Founded in 2001, the American Constitution Society (ACS) is a leading progressive legal organization and a rapidly growing network of attorneys, law students, scholars, judges, policymakers, and other concerned individuals, dedicated to making the law a force to improve people’s lives. For more information about the organization or its 200+ attorney and law student chapters in 48 states, visit or find us on Twitter | Facebook | Instagram.