Study: Blacks get harsher sentences than whites if judge’s football team loses

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It's a well established fact that racial bias is prevalent in the U.S. judicial system. 

But it's likely that few people have ever heard of the sore loser bias, in which judges dole out harsher sentences because their college football team got spanked by the opposing squad.

The National Bureau of Economic Research this month published findings of a study of judicial data in Louisiana, revealing that judges who are alums of Louisiana State University routinely handed down longer sentences when their precious Tigers lost. And as is almost universally true of the judicial system, black defendants disproportionately bore the brunt of the consequences. 

According to the researchers' findings, when the Tigers were expected to win but went on to lose, black juvenile defendants received sentences of about 46 days more than they typically did. That's an increase in sentence severity of almost 9% for blacks, while an upset loss for white juvenile defendants meant an increase of about eight days, or statistically less than 1%.

Fans take pictures outside of Louisiana State University's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.Source: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Fans take pictures outside of Louisiana State University's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Does this mean that black defendants received lenience when the Tigers managed an unexpected win? 

Not so much, according to the study. A win had "no significant impact on the disposition length set by the judge," the study's authors, Ozkan Eren and Naci Mocan, wrote. "Although harsher punishment handed down by judges is not deliberate (because it is triggered by an emotional shock), we find some evidence that black defendants bear much of the burden of judges' wrath due to this emotional shock, which hints at a negative predisposition towards black defendants."

Furthermore, the study noted, "the fact that there are no race related differences in the disposition length in the absence of judges' emotional stress [over a football team's loss] is suggestive of the existence of a subtle, and previously unnoticed, bias in sentencing."

The door of the public defenders office is pictured in New Orleans.Source: ALEX BRANDON/AP
The door of the public defenders office is pictured in New Orleans.  ALEX BRANDON/AP

The study examined a sample of 8,228 juvenile case records from 207 judges. Most of the Louisiana judges they reviewed were white, male, middle-aged and identified as Democrats. As for the defendants, 62% of those convicted were black, while 36% were white.

Though judges are meant to be unbiased, the researchers found it isn't always the case.

Given that "high-stake decisions about punishment severity are nevertheless expected to be free of" bias, it is "noteworthy that the judicial decisions are in fact impacted by emotions that are unrelated to the merits of the case," Eren and Mocan wrote.

In other words, something as seemingly trivial as a loss may be exaggerating the prevailing racial bias that so many are fighting to change.