If there is a growing bipartisan consensus that the U.S. locks up too many people for too long, there is little indication that anyone spending money on judicial elections shares the concern, says The Marshall Project. The real scourge of the justice system, these campaigns suggest, is the rampant coddling of child molesters by judges up for re-election. “WHY SO LENIENT?” asked an ad attacking an Illinois justice. A North Carolina commercial cut from an image of children pedaling tricycles to inmates pacing in their cells, and said a judge up for re-election “took the side of convicted molesters.”
The Brennan Center, a liberal think tank, estimated that more than $13.8 million had been spent on TV advertising for state supreme court elections in 2014—up from $12.2 million in 2010. The funders of these campaigns may not be motivated by a desire to lock up criminals. Some of this year's big donors to organizations running tough-on-crime campaigns, including conservative philanthropists Charles and David Koch, also have backed “smart-on-crime” reform efforts aimed at shortening mandatory sentences and reducing prison populations. Fear works, election strategists believe.