How to escape from jail: a tough but intelligent approach

Martha Gill's Irrational Animal's Column.

As David Cameron’s approach to crime gets “tough but intelligent” (if he says so himself), now might be the time for the rest of us to take a tough but intelligent approach to staying out of prison. For it can be done – and not just through blameless living.

One fairly sure way is to appear before a jury right after lunch. It’s an old courtroom legend – that the outcome of a trial depends on what the judge ate for breakfast – but here's some evidence to back it up. A scientist called Shai Danziger collected the results of 1,112 hearings from prisons in Israel, plotting how often judges granted parole against how long it had been since they last ate. The results were remarkable. The odds of getting out of jail free start at about 65 per cent right after everyone’s had a sandwich and then fall off to almost zero after a couple of hours. Feed the judges another sandwich and their generosity climbs right back up again.

Human willpower, you see, is a finite resource. When judges resist the hunger pangs, they are dipping in to reserves of stamina, making tempers short and sentences long.

Take a look at this experiment, conducted by Baba Shiv at Stanford. It was constructed as an exercise in resisting temptation, in the form of a slice of chocolate cake. Subjects were asked to remember strings of numbers (not long strings, just two to seven digits). Resisting the cake was easy after two digits but became almost impossible after seven. It took just a couple of extra pieces of information to wear down the subject’s willpower completely. Willpower is that weak. Life only needs to batter you slightly and you will go for the harsher jail sentence, leave the washing-up for tomorrow, have another drink, nick a watch.

And when your willpower is worn down, you are more likely to make snap judgements based on stereotypes, becoming sexist and racist. And this is a problem for judges, because evidence shows they are already vulnerable to these sorts of influences. So, if you want to stay out of prison, try being female rather than male, white rather than black, baby-faced rather than mature-looking. If you are a psychopath, make sure your defence explains the biology behind this to the jury. A study recently written up in the journal Science showed that this reduces sentencing by an average of one year.

If you want to stay out of prison, it also helps to make your statement rhyme. This loophole in judgement is known as the “Keats heuristic”, in which beauty is mistaken for truth, rhyme for reason. Johnnie Cochran used it to get an acquittal for O J Simpson, with his signature phrase: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Sounds right, doesn't it?

Wriggling out of a jail sentence or falling into one undeservedly has never been so easy. However, if, for symmetry, we were to take a tough but intelligent approach to jury standards, there are a couple of things we could do.

According to Birte Englich from the University of Cologne, making judges play games that teach them their own biases can help. Mandatory guidelines for sentences have been introduced in America (although they are being resisted) and there have been initiatives in New South Wales to increase the size of juries. Compulsory biscuit eating before each hearing can only be the next step.

Prison. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

Show Hide image

Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.