One Simple Chart Shows How Arbitrary the Criminal Justice System Is


In light of the Michael Brown-prompted Ferguson, Mo., demonstrations, the nation has been re-examining how extraneous factors such as race and socioeconomic status influence the criminal justice system. It may seem like a complex issue, but if you want a clear sense of just how arbitrary courtroom sentences can be, check out the graph below.

This graph from a 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that tracked parole judgments given out by the same group of judges. The researchers then matched these results with the time at which they were given out. The scale on x-axis denote every third case, while the circles indicate when the judges began the day or took a food break.

The result: Prisoners who were judged at the beginning of each session — when the judge had just eaten or rested — had a much higher chance of receiving parole than those who were judged later in each session. In other words, a full and rested judge is a happy judge, and a happy judge rules very differently than a tired and hungry judge. 

Even when controlling for factors such as gravity of offense, previous incarcerations, months served and proportion of prisoners with a rehabilitation program, the results "do indicate that extraneous variables can influence judicial decisions, which bolsters the growing body of evidence that points to the susceptibility of experienced judges to psychological biases," the study concluded. 

"Finally, our findings support the view that the law is indeterminate by showing that legally irrelevant situational determinants — in this case, merely taking a food break — may lead a judge to rule differently in cases with similar legal characteristics."

So while we would like to believe that justice is blind, it's important to keep in mind that something as simple as a food break can decide someone's freedom. They say "you're not you when you're hungry," but this is just a bit too ridiculous.