The Offense-Specific Nature of Gender and Familial Responsibility in United States Federal Sentencing, 2010–2016

Published date01 May 2022
Date01 May 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2022, Vol. 33(4) 399 –428
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211021899
The Offense-Specific
Nature of Gender and
Familial Responsibility
in United States Federal
Sentencing, 2010–2016
Bryan Holmes1, Christopher D’Amato1,
and Stephen T. Holmes2
Prior sentencing research has identified leniency afforded to females (compared with
males) and those with familial responsibility (compared with those without). Studies
have also found that the effect of defendant gender, familial responsibility, and their
intersections depend on the type of offense examined. What remains unclear is the
situations in which these factors matter more or less. The purpose of this study is to
disaggregate extralegal effects by understanding how gender, familial responsibility,
and their intersections influence federal sentencing outcomes across various offense
types. Findings from this study suggest that gender, familial responsibility, and their
combinations exert different influences depending on the (a) dependent variable and
(b) offense type examined.
punishment, gender, sentencing, family
At sentencing, judges are said to rely on both legally and substantively rational consid-
erations (Savelsberg, 1992). Legally rational considerations include offense serious-
ness, criminal history, and aggravating circumstances such as the presence of a weapon
1University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, USA
2University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Bryan Holmes, Graduate Research Assistant, School of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati, 2600
Clifton Ave, Cincinnati, OH 45221, USA.
1021899CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211021899Criminal Justice Policy ReviewHolmes et al.
400 Criminal Justice Policy Review 33(4)
(Kramer & Ulmer, 2009). Meanwhile, substantively rational considerations include
those used to individualize punishment to the defendant such as culpability attribu-
tions, social cost of incarceration, and familial responsibility (Engen et al., 2003). In
support of the conceptualization of courts as battling formal and substantive rational-
ity, judges have been found to rely on both legally and (to a lesser extent) substantively
rational considerations (Doerner & Demuth, 2010, 2014; Kim et al., 2019; Spohn,
2000). For example, while legal factors explain the majority of variation in sentencing
decisions, females tend to receive more lenient sentences than similarly situated males
(Etienne, 2010). In addition, female status tends to matter more when the female takes
a familial role (Bickle & Peterson, 1991; Koons-Witt, 2002).
The relationship between gender, familial responsibility, and sentencing is not
static across offense types. Rodriguez et al. (2006) found that the female advantage at
the incarceration decision exists for property and drug offenses, but not violent
offenses. Koons-Witt and colleagues (2014) found that females are sentenced to
shorter periods of incarceration for drug trafficking offenses but not drug possession
offenses. Furthermore, research indicates that drug offending mothers tend to be sen-
tenced particularly harshly (Arditti, 2012; Spohn, 1999) compared with mothers who
commit other offenses (e.g., economic, property). Given this mixed evidence across
offense types, there is a pressing need for research that disaggregates these effects to
better understand the loci of extralegal disparity in sentencing outcomes.
The purpose of this study is to examine the effect of gender, familial responsibility,
and the combination of the two on incarceration and sentence length decisions in fed-
eral courts using offense-specific samples. Specifically, we examine these relation-
ships across (a) drug trafficking, (b) firearm, and (c) economic offenses in federal
courts. These offense types make up a substantial portion of the U.S. citizen federal
caseload (72% combined from 2010 to 2016). To achieve our study goal, we use the
annual United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) Monitoring of Federal Criminal
Sentences data sets from 2010 to 2016.
This study extends prior literature on the relationship between gender, familial
responsibility, and sentencing in a few ways. First, prior research on federal courts has
commonly entered gender and dependents as direct measures (Feldmeyer & Ulmer,
2011; Holmes & Feldmeyer, 2019). While these relationships are important, examin-
ing only direct effects can sometimes mask relationships when the influence of one
variable is not constant across another (e.g., being a female caretaker results in more
of a sentencing discount than being a male caretaker). In the current study, we examine
the direct and joint effects of defendant gender and dependents. Second, in the post-
guideline era, there has been a movement past analyzing whether extralegal sentenc-
ing disparity exists and toward analyzing when extralegal disparity is aggravated or
mitigated (Tillyer et al., 2015; Ulmer, 2012). This study contributes to that research
agenda by using offense-specific samples. Third, instead of using just (a) number of
dependents or(b) whether a defendant has dependents, we analyze models interchang-
ing the two, a continuous and dichotomous measure, to see if dependents effects are
reflective of the number of dependents or simply holding a familial role.1 Last, due to
the merging of 6 years of federal sentencing data, we are able to analyze defendants

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