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

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.