We tend to think of judges as impartial arbiters of wrong and right (it’s pretty much in the job titles). Girded with years of intensive education and steeped in knowledge, they preside over the courtroom free from the petty concerns and emotional distractions that plague the rest of us.
But there’s new evidence that judges might be more like the rest of us than we thought, affected by external events and emotional responses. A new working paper finds that an upset loss for a prominent college football team in the state could lead some judges to hand down longer sentences the following week.
Upset losses increase the length of sentences judges hand down to juvenile defendants.
Taking It out on Them
In a new working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research, LSU economists Ozkan Enren and Naci Mocan analyze juvenile court decisions in Louisiana between 1996 and 2012. They investigate whether emotional shocks have an impact on the length of sentences handed out to first-time offenders between ages 10 and 17. The emotional shocks take the form of “surprise” outcomes for the LSU football team the week before, based on the Vegas point spreads. Out of their universe of judges, one-third got their bachelor’s degree from LSU and almost half graduated from the law school.
They find that upset losses increase the length of sentences judges hand down to juvenile defendants. These upsets happened 14 times over the period they analyzed, and in those weeks judges recommended sentences 35 days, or 7 percent, longer than the baseline. In aggregate, each of these upset losses led to excess sentence lengths for juvenile defenders in the state of 1,332 days.
The effects of these upset losses persist throughout the next week, but are gone by the next one.
The effects of these upset losses persist throughout the next week, but are gone by the next one. The authors also find that these results are mostly driven by judges who received their undergraduate degrees from LSU, and that the effects were more pronounced for upset losses in higher stakes games where the team was ranked in the AP’s top ten.
One surprising, and distressing, finding was that sentences seemed to lengthen for black defendants, with an increase in sentence severity of almost 9 percent, while white defendants had an effect about one-sixth as large that was not statistically significant. The authors write that this, “suggest[s] that the brunt of judges’ emotional reaction is borne mostly by black defendants… [and] implies unequal treatment of black defendants, triggered by an outside event, unrelated to the merits of the case.”
Surprise wins and losses where the outcome was uncertain did not have any discernible impact. The authors employed a placebo test to see if unexpected results for other teams had any effect and failed to find any results.
When Government Is Human Too
The usual caveats apply in this case: this is just one study, and it is still in the working paper stage so has not wended its way through peer-review. We should be cautious about taking too much from any one study. That said, other studies have found, for example, that the likelihood that judges grant parole could be affected by when in the day the case got heard. As the day wore on and judges got hungrier, they were less likely to grant parole, with those rates recovering after each of the two daily meal breaks.
There are no angels to administer the country’s laws and policies.
This study and the related literature should remind us that judges, and by extension every government official, policymaker, and employee, are fallible people like everyone else. They can be affected by external factors that seem completely unrelated, like the result of a college football game, and these effects then influence something like juvenile sentence length.
Unfortunately, this discovery could be all too timely as some juvenile defendants could be finding out just how real the impact of upset losses can be this week, as an LSU that was ranked No. 5 suffered an unexpected loss to Wisconsin in the opening week of the season. And this can happen even among a highly educated group that is supposed to be particularly impartial.
There are no angels to administer the country’s laws and policies, even the most well-intentioned and presumably impartial people can be affected by external factors. This study might lead to more awareness of the unforeseen and unintended consequences that can come into play when it comes to public policy, government, and the law.