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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.