GENDER AND IMPRISONMENT DECISIONS

Authors


  • Darrell Steffensmeier is Professor of Sociology at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park. His research interests include the sociology of law, organized crime, and the structural covariates of crime (including race, gender, and age). His recent book The Fence: In the Shadow of Two Worlds, was the recipient of the 1987 Award of Outstanding Scholarship of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. During 1990–91 he served as project director and principal writer of the 1990 Report—Organized Crime in Pennsylvania: A Decade of Change. He is currently conducting a NSF-sponsored study of men and women lower-court judges in Pennsylvania.

  • John Kramer is Associate Professor of Sociology at The Pennsylvania State University. He is also the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. His research interests include the sociology of law, sentencing and sentencing disparity. As Executive Director of the Commission on Sentencing he is actively involved in writing, monitoring and evaluating Pennsylvania's sentencing guidelines. He is currently conducting a BJA funded study of structured sentencing.

  • Cathy Streifel earned her Ph.D. at The Pennsylvania State University in 1989, and currently is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University. Her articles on gender and crime and age and crime have been published in leading criminology and sociology journals. In addition to her continuing study of gender and crime, Streifel's current research efforts involve analyses of judicial decisionmaking and the crime-alcoholism relationship (especially among women offenders).

Abstract

Guidelines sentencing data from Pennsylvania for the years 1985–1987 are analyzed to assess the influence of gender on judges' imprisonment decisions. These data provide detailed information on offense severity and prior record, permit statistical controls for other variables thought to affect imprisonment decisions, cover a fairly comprehensive list of common-law offenses (with adequate sample size), and contain judges' dispositional-departure reasons for sentences outside the guidelines schema. The data—analyzed with additive and interactive models–indicate that gender (net of other factors) has a small effect on the likelihood of imprisonment toward lesser jailing of female defendants but has a negligible effect on the length-of-imprisonment decision. Observations and interview responses from selected judges help to clarify the ways in which judges' sentencing practices are gender linked. Together, the statistical and the qualitative data suggest that the sentencing practices of judges are driven by two main concerns, blameworthiness (e.g., as indicated by prior record, type of involvement, remorse) and practicality (e.g., as indicated by child-care responsibility, pregnancy, emotional or physical problems, availability of adequate jail space). Based on our findings, we suspect that when men and women appear in (contemporary) criminal court in similar circumstances and are charged with similar offenses, they receive similar treatment. A major question from a policy perspective is, when gender disparities in sentence outcomes do arise, are the disparities warranted or unwarranted?

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