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Football Team Losses Can Affect Prison Sentences

New research finds juvenile court judges in Louisiana give out harsher sentences—especially to black defendants—following an unexpected loss by LSU.
LSU wide receiver Travin Dural can't haul in a pass against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on September 20th, 2014, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

LSU wide receiver Travin Dural can't haul in a pass against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on September 20th, 2014, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

A variety of factors can influence the severity of a sentence handed down by a judge. Whether the local college football team won Saturday's game should not be one of them.

And yet, there is evidence that when the Louisiana State University Tigers suffer an upset loss, local juvenile court judges take out their frustration on the convicted defendants standing before them, giving them longer sentences than they would otherwise receive.

What's more, "the effects of these emotional shocks are asymmetrically borne by black defendants," write LSU economists Ozkan Eren and Naci Mocan.

This "subtle and previously unnoticed capricious application of sentencing" is revealed in a new study published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.

The researchers analyzed the files for all defendants in the Louisiana juvenile justice system from 1996 to 2012. They noted the severity of the sentence handed down, and the university and law school the sentencing judge attended.

These decisions were then matched with the success or failure of the LSU football team (which, the researchers, note, has "an enormous group of loyal followers") the weekend before the sentencing. Using the Las Vegas point spread, they noted if the win or loss was unexpected.

They found a clear pattern. "Unexpected losses increase sentence lengths assigned by judges during the week following the game," the researchers report. "Unexpected wins, or losses (in game expected to be) close contests, have no impact."

"We find these impacts are stronger for judges who received their bachelor's degrees from LSU," they write, and are thus more likely to have developed an emotional attachment to the team. "We also find that the impact is larger for trials that take place after an upset loss in an important game"—that is, when the Associated Press ranked LSU among the top 10 teams going into the game.

This evidence of irrelevant events influencing judicial judgments becomes even more disturbing when the data is broken down by the defendants' race. (Remember, these are all juveniles.)

"An upset loss increases the disposition length by about 43 days for black defendants, which translates into an increase in sentence severity by almost 8 percent," the researchers report. "The impact of an upset loss for white defendants is about one-tenth as large—about five days."

The researchers say the results "suggest that the brunt of judges' emotional reaction (to an upsetting loss) is borne mostly by black defendants."

It's no secret that judges' moods impact their decisions. A 2011 study from Israel found judges there are much more likely to grant parole just after they have eaten, as opposed to when they are hungry. Personal biases can also play a role in such decisions; remember the infamous case of the California judge who gave a light sentence to a Stanford University swimmer who assaulted an unconscious woman.

This research raises questions of how much discretion judges should have in handing down prison sentences to juveniles—or adults, for that matter. Strict sentencing guidelines can be problematic, but surely they're preferable to having one's fate hinge on the outcome of Saturday's game.