January 11, 2016 By Wallin & Klarich

Gender equality is a common topic of discussion in modern times. But one area of gender equality that deserves more attention is the differences in how men and women are treated by the criminal justice system. A recent study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice highlights a number of areas where men and women are treated differently when charged with a similar crime.[1]

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Do Women Receive More Favorable Treatment?

The study examined the period of time from a defendant’s initial appearance in court until he or she was sentenced for a crime. The sample for the study was a set of felony cases referred to the prosecutor’s office of a large, northern urban jurisdiction in the United States in 2009. The defendants’ criminal charges included various violent, property and drug offenses.

Ultimately, the study found that in a number of ways, female criminal defendants were treated better than their male counterparts. Among the findings:

  • Women were 46 percent less likely to be held in jail before trial.
  • Women were issued lower bail bond fees, amounting to less than half of what men charged with a similar crime were required to pay.
  • Women were 58 percent less likely to be sentenced to prison.

However, not all of the findings showed a difference in treatment between men and women. For instance, once a person was sentenced to prison, the researchers found that there generally was no difference in the length of the sentence given to male and female defendants for the same criminal charge.

Still, there were differences in sentencing for some individual types of crime, and not always in favor of women. For example, women convicted of theft charges tended to receive longer prison sentences than men, but women convicted of other types of property crimes – arson, receiving stolen property, and breaking and entering — received shorter prison sentences than men.

Same Gender + Different Race = Different Treatment

The study also compared the differences in treatment between black female defendants and white female defendants. It found that in some cases, the treatment between women of different races was not equal. For example, black women were required to pay higher bail bond fees than white women, and black women also were more likely to be sent to prison than white women. However, all women were more likely to be released prior to trial than men charged with the same crimes.

How Do We Close the Gender Gap?

In this area, the disparity in treatment between male and female defendants is a problem because it is evidence that the courts have lost sight of one of the fundamental tenants of our judicial system: fairness.

Suppose a man and a woman are each charged with the crime of assault with a deadly weapon. The law that they are each accused of violating ignores the gender of the accused, but the courts apparently do not. When the only difference between the two defendants is gender and their particular crime has no gender component, what possible sense could there be in allowing one to go home before trial and the other to remain in jail? Or to order different bail amounts for the right to go home in advance of the trial?

While the individual facts in each case may be different, the purpose of requiring a bond is to reduce the risk that a person will flee before trial. In the example involving assault with a deadly weapon, the defendants represent an equal risk to society in that each is prone to using a weapon. In setting a bond amount that is different or denying bail based on gender, the courts are not carrying out equal justice under the law.

Professor Sonja Starr of the University of Michigan made similar findings in her study of gender disparities in cases of men and women charged with federal crimes.[2] She believes the solution to this problem does not lie in locking up more women to make up the gap. Instead, we must “reconsider the decision-making criteria that are applied to men. About one in every 50 American men is currently behind bars, and we could think about gender disparity as perhaps being a key dimension of that problem.”[3]

Share Your Thoughts With Us

We at Wallin & Klarich would like you to share your feedback on this topic. What should be done to ensure that all defendants receive the same treatment under the criminal justice system, regardless of their gender? Do you believe that there are good reasons to treat men and women differently in criminal cases? Please feel free to leave your comments below.

[1] Goulette, N., Woolredge, J., Frank, J., and Travis III, L., “From Initial Appearance to Sentencing: Do Female Defendants Experience Disparate Treatment?” Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 43, Issue 5, September–October 2015, Pages 406–417

[2] Starr, Sonja B., “Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases,” University of Michigan Law and Economics Research Paper, No. 12-018 , August 29, 2012.

[3] Press Release, “Prof. Starr’s research shows large unexplained gender disparities in federal criminal cases,” University of Michigan School of Law, November 16, 2012, available at https://www.law.umich.edu/newsandinfo/features/Pages/starr_gender_disparities.aspx

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