Gender Equality and Sentencing Outcomes: An Examination of State Courts

Date01 June 2020
AuthorJeffrey S. Nowacki
Published date01 June 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2020, Vol. 31(5) 673 –695
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403419840804
Gender Equality and
Sentencing Outcomes: An
Examination of State Courts
Jeffrey S. Nowacki1
The current study examined whether measures of structural gender equality
conditioned the effects of defendant gender on incarceration decisions. Using
data from the State Court Processing Statistics (SCPS) database, multilevel logistic
regression was used to examine the relationship between both case- and county-
level variables on incarceration decisions on a sample of defendants sentenced in
state courts. Results indicated that women were less likely to be sentenced to prison
than men, but there was no gender difference for jail and noncustodial sentences;
however, the structural gender equality measures exerted only slight influences over
sentencing outcomes.
sentencing, gender equality, social context
Sentencing scholars have produced a large body of empirical research that examines
gender disparity in sentencing (Daly & Bordt, 1995; Spohn, 1999). Broadly, this area
of scholarship finds that women, on average, are less likely to receive custodial sen-
tences (Freiburger & Hilinski, 2013; Gruhl, Welch, & Spohn, 1984; Harrington &
Spohn, 2007; Spohn & Beichner, 2000; Spohn & Spears, 1997), less likely to serve
long prison terms (Koons-Witt, Sevigny, Burrow, & Hester, 2014; Steffensmeier,
Ulmer, & Kramer, 1998) and more likely to benefit from downward departure sentenc-
ing (Bontrager, Barrick, & Stupi, 2013; Steffensmeier, Kramer, & Streifel, 1993).
Explanations for these gender-based disparities have been linked to both the
possibility that members of the courtroom work group aim to treat women offenders
1Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jeffrey S. Nowacki, Department of Sociology, Colorado State University, B264 Clark Building, Fort
Collins, CO 80523-1784, USA.
840804CJPXXX10.1177/0887403419840804Criminal Justice Policy ReviewNowacki
674 Criminal Justice Policy Review 31(5)
in a chivalrous fashion (Crew, 1991; Moulds, 1978), and that these workgroup mem-
bers attempt to protect the women and their families (Daly, 1987a, 1987b; Daly, 1989a;
1989b; Freiburger, 2011).
Some research that attempts to explain gender disparity in sentencing decisions has
approached the question from a social control/social costs framework (see Daly,
1987a; Freiburger, 2011). This framework suggests an inverse relationship between
the levels of formal and informal social controls required to punish offenders. That is,
the more informal social control available to offenders, the less likely that formal mea-
sures of social control are necessary to deter future criminal behavior. In this context,
family and childcare responsibilities provide informal social control. Moreover, it is
more difficult to replace care-taking behavior than financial resources, which helps
explain why women with dependent children are often less likely to receive custodial
sanctions than are men with dependent children (Daly, 1987b).
Several studies have also begun to explain disparities in sentencing outcomes
by examining social contextual characteristics of both the courtrooms (Dixon,
1995; Johnson, 2005; Ulmer & Johnson, 2004), and the communities where they
are located (Britt, 2000; Fearn, 2005; Kramer & Ulmer, 2009; Myers & Talarico,
1987; Nowacki, 2018; Wang & Mears, 2010). Much of this research has focused
on explaining racial and ethnic, rather than gender disparities. While criminologi-
cal examinations of other outcomes (e.g., victimization) have used aggregate mea-
sures of gender equality, few studies in the sentencing literature have done so (see
Nowacki & Windsong, 2019; Ryon, 2013, for exceptions). Virtually no studies
have used measures of structural gender equality to explain incarceration deci-
sions at the state court level.
This article contributes to the sentencing literature by examining how gender equal-
ity might condition the effect of gender in sentencing in state courts. Using a variety
of measures of gender equality, I argue that in counties where men and women are
more equal in terms of income, labor force participation, and educational attainment,
women receive particularly lenient sentences.
This type of study is important because it helps understand how sentencing is a
process that goes far beyond individual defendants receiving charges and sentences
from individual prosecutors and judges. Defendants and the courtroom workgroup
members are all embedded within social environments, and it is necessary to under-
stand those environments to understand courtroom decision-making. It is not necessar-
ily that judges are acutely aware of absolute levels of gender equality and apply them
to sentencing decisions. Instead, gender equality may say something broader about
social and courtroom communities and help understand where and how extra-legal
characteristics, such as gender, matter (see Spohn, 2009).
Gender Disparity in State Courts
The sentencing literature has identified gender as one of the most robust predictors
of sentencing outcomes, net of legally relevant variables such as offense severity
and criminal history (Bontrager et al., 2013; Daly & Bordt, 1995; Spohn, Gruhl, &

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