There’s an old trope that says justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast”. It was coined by Jerome Frank, himself a judge, and it’s a powerful symbol of the legal realism movement. This school of thought holds that the law, being a human concoction, is subject to the same foibles, biases and imperfections that affect everything humans do. We’d love to believe that a judge’s rulings are solely based on rational decisions and written laws. In reality, they can be influenced by irrelevant things like their moods and, as Frank suggested, their breakfasts.
The graph above is almost the visual embodiment of Frank’s catchphrase. It’s the work of Shai Denzeger from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and summarises the results of 1,112 parole board hearings in Israeli prisons, over a ten month period. The vertical axis is the proportion of cases where the judges granted parole. The horizontal axis shows the order in which the cases were heard during the day. And the dotted lines, they represent the points where the judges went away for a morning snack and their lunch break.
The graph is dramatic. It shows that the odds that prisoners will be successfully paroled start off fairly high at around 65% and quickly plummet to nothing over a few hours (although, see footnote). After the judges have returned from their breaks, the odds abruptly climb back up to 65%, before resuming their downward slide. A prisoner’s fate could hinge upon the point in the day when their case is heard.
These rulings were made by eight Jewish-Israeli judges, with an average of 22 years of judging behind them. Their verdicts represented 40% of all parole requests in the country during the ten months. Every day, each judge considers between 14 and 35 cases, spending around 6 minutes on each decision. They take two food breaks that divide their day into three sessions. All of these details, from the decision to the times of the breaks, are duly recorded.
As you might expect, the judges were less likely to grant parole to prisoners who were earmarked as potential re-offenders, or to those who weren’t part of a specific rehabilitation programme. That’s rational enough, but the influence of the food breaks is less so! Denzeger found that the three prisoners seen at the start of each “session” were more likely to be paroled than the three who are seen at the end. That’s true regardless of the length of their sentence, or whether they had been incarcerated before.
Read the rest here.