Expert Commentary

Are criminal courts more lenient on women?

2015 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice that looks at gender disparities in pretrial release and in jail sentencing decisions.

Female inmate (

While women have made great strides in achieving gender equity in many areas of American society, gender stereotypes remain pervasive. Voters sometimes have different expectations of female political candidates. Business remains dominated by men. Women are vastly underrepresented in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Women often make less money than men working the same jobs. According to the White House, a woman earns an average of 78 cents for each dollar a man makes.

Sometimes, however, gender stereotypes benefit women, particularly in the area of criminal justice. Scholars have found that women receive shorter sentences for sex crimes than men. A 2014 study suggests that federal courts are more lenient on female defendants in general. They are less likely to incarcerate women and tend to give women shorter sentences than men.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice, “From Initial Appearance to Sentencing: Do Female Defendants Experience Disparate Treatment?,” takes a broader look at gender disparities within the criminal justice system. The four researchers — Natalie Goulette of the University of West Florida and John Wooldredge, James Frank and Lawrence Travis III of the University of Cincinnati — explored outcomes at two key stages of the criminal justice process. They examined decisions that judges made at a defendant’s first appearance hearing and during sentencing. Previous studies had investigated gender disparities in judicial decisions connected with only one of those two events, potentially neglecting the interaction of the outcomes at each phase. The researchers analyzed 3,593 felony cases that had been referred in 2009 to the County Office of the Prosecutor of a large, urban jurisdiction in the northern United States.

Findings include:

  • Women were less likely to be detained before trial. They were 46 percent less likely than men to held in jail prior to a trial.
  • Women who were released on bond were given lower bond amounts. Their bonds were set at amounts that were 54 percent lower than what men were required to pay.
  • Women were 58 percent less likely to be sentenced to prison.
  • For defendants who were sentenced to prison, there generally was no gender disparity in the length of the sentence. There were disparities in sentencing for some individual types of crime, however. For example, female defendants convicted of theft received longer prison sentences than male defendants convicted of theft. Women convicted of “other property offenses” – a category of crimes that includes arson, receiving stolen property and breaking and entering — received shorter prison sentences.
  • Black female defendants were, in some ways, treated differently than white female defendants. Black women were assigned higher bond amounts and were more likely to be sent to prison than white women. Women of both races were equally likely to be released prior to trial.

The authors hypothesize that judges might treat female defendants more leniently when they conform to the traditional gender roles of housewife and mother. Goulette and her colleagues found support for the “evil woman” theory, which suggests that this “chivalry” is reserved for certain groups of women who appear to be docile and in need of protection. The authors suggest that future research should explore the idea that, in some cases, some judges may treat female defendants more harshly if they believe it is in the defendants’ best interest or if the tougher sentence will serve to protect the women in the future. The researchers also suggest that policymakers consider ways to standardize the judicial process, which could reduce disparities by constraining judges’ discretion. The authors stress the need to more carefully monitor the decisions that judges make at a defendant’s first-appearance hearing. “Our findings suggest that decisions related to bond amounts impact pretrial detention which, in turn, is one of the strongest predictors of prison sentences,” the authors state.

Related research: A 2014 study in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, “An Examination of Defendant Sex Disparity in Capital Sentencing: A Propensity Score Matching Approach,” looks at the role of gender in capital sentencing. A 2014 study in Criminal Justice and Behavior, “Needs and Pretrial Failure: Additional Risk Factors for Female and Male Pretrial Defendants,” examines whether female defendants have different needs in pretrial screenings.


Keywords: law, gender, gender disparity, civil rights, crime, conviction rates, incarceration rates, sentencing, sex offense, judicial leniency, chivalry, paternalism, single mothers

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