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Incentive Effects of Recall Elections: Evidence from Criminal Sentencing in California Courts

Thirty-nine US states authorize recall elections, but the incentives they create are not well understood. We examine how changes in the perceived threat of recall alter the behavior of one set of officials: judges. In 2016, outrage over the sentence imposed on a Stanford athlete following his sexual assault conviction sparked a drive to recall the presiding judge. Using disposition data from six California counties and arrest records for a subset of defendants, we find a large, discontinuous increase in sentencing severity associated with the recall campaign’s announcement. Additional tests suggest that the observed shift may be attributed to changes in judicial preferences over sentencing and not strategic adjustment by prosecutors. We also demonstrate that the heterogeneous effects of the announcement did not mitigate preexisting racial disparities. Our findings are the first to document the incentive effects of recall and suggest that targeted political campaigns may have far-reaching, unintended consequences.