Studies have shown factors as seemingly irrelevant as what a judge ate for breakfast might impact the length of criminal sentences—and one recent working paper seems to take those findings to a new extreme.
In their paper published this month, titled "Emotional Judges and Unlucky Juveniles," Ozkan Eren and Naci Mocan, two economists at Louisiana State University, found that black juvenile defendants received harsher criminal penalties when a college in the judge's home state lost a football game.
Their study, specific to Louisiana, is still in its preliminary stages and has yet to be submitted for peer-review, but points to a potentially insidious trend in the state's juvenile court system.
"In explaining human behavior and human decisions, it could be important to take into account the potential impact of mood changes triggered by emotional shocks," Mocan told Fusion. "Emotions may have powerful impacts on judgments, decisions and choices."
The paper predominantly focuses on the LSU football team, the school that employs the study's two authors. Eren and Mocan have written on youth and the criminal justice system in the past; in February, the two helped author a study titled "Judges, Juveniles, and In-Group Bias."
For the study, Eren and Mocan looked at every judicial decision issued by Louisiana's juvenile court between 1996 and 2012, spanning more than 8,000 cases. Sixty-two percent of convicted defendants were black; 36% were white. Louisiana's incarceration rate, according to Eren and Mocan, was 25% during that same period of time, versus a national average of 26%.
To determine an "upset" loss, they used Las Vegas point spreads, and defined an upset as games where LSU was favored to win by four points or more. Of the 179 games studied, there were 14 "upset losses." In the 14 weeks following those losses, 781 sentences were issued.
To address any potential potential bias from lawyers, the authors looked at cases where the guilt of the defendant was determined before the game, and the sentencing decision was made after the game. In those cases, the authors found no statistical evidence that the absence of attorney or prosecutorial influence played a substantial role.
In the 57-page paper, a number of shocking results emerge. One of the more jarring findings include the authors looking at sentences issued specifically by judges with degrees from LSU.
"Unexpected losses of the LSU football team," they write, "prompts judges to impose sentences that are 74 days longer if these judges have received their undergraduate degrees from LSU." In instances when the judges weren't LSU alumni, there was no effect.
The authors continued:
Using the estimated parameters of the model, we calculate that each upset loss of the LSU football team triggers excess punishments of juvenile defenders in Louisiana by a total of about 4,420 days, including time in custody and probation. Furthermore, we find that 552 additional days of jail term has been assigned to juveniles due to an upset loss in a football game.
Two-hundred-and-seven judges were included in the study, about a third of which had bachelor's degrees from LSU.
Concluding the paper, the authors state that "emotional stress, imposed on judges externally, prompts them to impose harsher sentences on defendants who were unlucky enough to face the judge during the period of the stress," and that "the burden of the emotional trauma generated by the upset loss seems to fall on black defendants."
Eren and Mocan also specify the exact burden borne by white youth and black youth. An upset loss results, they say, in a difference of sentence length for white youth that's "statistically not different from zero;" for black youth, however, the increase in sentence severity is nearly 9%. In other words, black youth, according to this study, appear to be the only ones affected by this phenomenon.
According to data compiled by The Sentencing Project, Louisiana's juvenile custody rate (180 people for every 100,000) is just about in line with national averages (173 people for every 100,000).
The paper, which can be read here in its entirety, paints an ugly picture of the permeability of the justice system, even when it comes to something as stupid as the result of a football game.
Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.