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Do women receive lighter prison sentences than men? If so, why?

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The Federal criminal sentencing guidelines struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 required that males and females who commit the same crime and have the same prior criminal record be sentenced equally. Using data obtained from the United States Sentencing Commission’s records, we examine whether there exists any gender-based bias in criminal sentencing decisions. We treat months in prison as a censored variable in order to account for the frequent outcome of no prison time. Additionally, we control for the self-selection of the defendant into guilty pleas through use of an endogenous switching regression model. A new decomposition methodology is employed. Our results indicate that women receive more lenient sentences even after controlling for circumstances such as the severity of the offense and past criminal history.

Source: “Do You Receive a Lighter Prison Sentence Because You Are a Woman? An Economic Analysis of Federal Criminal Sentencing Guidelines” from IZA Discussion Paper No. 2870, June 2007

It’s not pro-woman bias on the part of female judges that causes this, it’s the paternalism of male judges:

Studies of federal prison sentences consistently find unexplained racial and gender disparities in the length of sentence and in the probability of receiving jail time and departures from the Sentencing Guidelines. These disparities disfavor blacks, Hispanics, and men. A problem with interpreting these studies is that the source of the disparities remains unidentified. The gravest concern is that sentencing disparities are the result of prejudice, but other explanations have not been ruled out. For example, wealth and quality of legal counsel are poorly controlled for and are undoubtedly correlated with race. This paper uses the political, racial, and gender composition of the district court bench to estimate the effect of judicial demographics on sentencing and on observed racial and gender disparities. The evidence presented here suggests that judicial demographics have little influence on prison sentences in general, but do impact racial and gender disparities. The findings regarding gender in the case of serious offenses are quite striking: the greater the proportion of female judges in a district, the lower the gender disparity for that district. I interpret this as evidence of a paternalistic bias among male judges that favors women. The racial composition of the bench has mixed effects that are open to different interpretations. The race and gender results suggest, however, that a judge’s background affects his or her sentencing decisions. Finally, there is little evidence that the political composition of the district affects sentencing disparities.

Source: “Racial and Gender Disparities in Prison Sentences: The Effect of District-Level Judicial Demographics” from Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 57-92, January 2005

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About Eric Barker