Judicial Sentencing and Daylight Saving Time

Our justice system in the United States is not the greatest system that we have developed. In recent years a lot of attention has been paid to disparities in sentencing and ways in which the system doesn’t seem to operate fairly. For instance possession of the same amount crack cocaine and powder cocaine carried different mandated sentences, even though it was the same drug just in different forms. The sentencing differences represented a bias in the way we treated the drug considering who was more likely to be a crack versus powder cocaine user.


In general, we believe that our system is fair and unbiased. We like to believe that our judges, jurors, and justice system officials are blind, only seeing the facts of the case and making rational decisions that are consistent from case to case. It is important that we believe our system works this way and that we take steps to ensure it does, but there is evidence that it does not and that basic factors of our humanity prevent the system from being perfectly fair.


An interesting example of the challenges of creating a perfectly balanced judicial system is presented in Daniel Pink’s book When. Pink’s book is an exploration of time and the power of timing in our lives. He presents evidence that the human mind’s decision-making ability deteriorates throughout the course of the day, becoming less nuanced, less analytical, and more easily distracted the longer we have been awake and the longer we have been focused on a task. Judges are no exception.


Pink references a study that shows that simple timing changes can impact the decisions that judges make, even when the timing seems as though it should be irrelevant. Pink writes, “Another study of U.S. federal courts found that on the Mondays after the switch to Daylight Saving Time, when people on average lose roughly forty minutes of sleep, judges rendered prison sentences that were about 5 percent longer than the ones they handed down on typical Mondays.”


A slight loss of sleep, and a slight change in time resulted in inconsistent sentencing within our courts. The decisions our judges make are nuanced and challenging, and our judges have to make multiple life impacting decisions each day. Unfortunately, the system within which they operate is not designed to help provide more consistency across scheduling. Factors such as Daylight Saving Time, extensive blocks between lunch and breaks, and long daily schedules wear out our judges, and lead to less nuanced thinking and less fair sentences. We should think about how our system impacts the decisions we make (within the judicial system, the corporate board room, and on the factory floor) and try to redesign systems around time to help people make better and more consistent decisions.

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