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September 11, 2012

"Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this great-looking new paper by Sonja Starr, which is now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This paper assesses gender disparities in federal criminal cases. It finds large gender gaps favoring women throughout the sentence length distribution (averaging over 60%), conditional on arrest offense, criminal history, and other pre-charge observables.  Female arrestees are also significantly likelier to avoid charges and convictions entirely, and twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted.

Prior studies have reported much smaller sentence gaps because they have ignored the role of charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing fact-finding in producing sentences. Most studies control for endogenous severity measures that result from these earlier discretionary processes and use samples that have been winnowed by them.  I avoid these problems by using a linked dataset tracing cases from arrest through sentencing.  Using decomposition methods, I show that most sentence disparity arises from decisions at the earlier stages, and use the rich data to investigate causal theories for these gender gaps.

I have long found that, in both the classroom and in other settings, discussion of discretion and disparity in the criminal justice treatment of different genders can often foster more dynamic and less polarizing discusson than when the focus is on race. For this reason (and many others), I hope to soon find time to consume this important new article and may well comment on it further.

September 11, 2012 at 10:50 AM | Permalink


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The best thing a defendant can do at sentencing is be a woman. In my experience, judges tend to be reluctant to punish female defendants, even when thosee defendants do something egregiously wrong and refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they inflict on innocent victims. It's always struck me as terribly unfair when a man gets a sentence decades longer than his female codefendant who engaged in identical conduct, but it happens regularly. It's not just limited to the issues identified in the abstract, either, as I've seen women get bonds in cases where they have half a dozen 3142 factors stacked against them and offer essentially nothing to overcome the presumption of detention. While I'm sure the individual defendants are happy about the breaks they catch, this is a terribly regressive bias that reflects an antiquated patriarchal view of female agency. It's bad for America. Thank you for linking the paper and encouraging this discussion.

Posted by: Prosecutorial Indiscretion | Sep 11, 2012 11:18:57 AM

When I was a public defender, I was on duty and was told a woman in the lockup was charged with possession of 4 pounds of cocaine in her suitcase. On my way to see her, I read the affidavit, and the case looked grim. When I met the client, I was stunned by her beauty. I said to myself that she would never serve a day. And she never did.

Posted by: lawyer from cal. | Sep 11, 2012 1:55:53 PM

Defense lawyers, after arguing passionately that their female clients should be shown leniency, then anonymously show up on this board to complain that they win.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 11, 2012 4:35:04 PM

Bill Otis, male judges just can't help being intoxicated by beautiful women; after all, a thing of beauty is a joy forever. With more and more female judges on the bench, however, matters are definitely changing. Were "lawyer from cal's"
client to come before a female judge today, she'd get ten years.

Posted by: enamored of women | Sep 11, 2012 5:32:59 PM

Yes, everyone should just stop complaining about the fact that similarly situated women appear to receive much greater leniency than men. After all, this bias benefits 10 percent of your clients.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Sep 11, 2012 7:53:04 PM

Michael Drake --

I trust then they you have never made an argument that a female client should receive leniency on account of some factor related to her gender, since this, you know, really yuuuchy discrimination is not something you would be so unprincipled as to seek to advance..............would it?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 11, 2012 8:16:27 PM

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