Noting that "In the United States, men are fifteen times as likely to be incarcerated as women," scholars have wondered whether this difference "can be explained by differences in criminal behavior or circumstances, or are courts or prosecutors treating genuinely equivalent cases differently on the basis of gender?" Given the obvious constitutional implications, reasons for this difference generate important policy and legal interest.
In Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases, Sonja Starr (Michigan) explores reasons for this difference using a dataset that "traces federal criminal cases from arrest through sentencing. I find that gender gaps widen at every stage of the justice process and that men and women ultimately receive dramatically different sentences." An excerpted abstract follows:
"[the paper] 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."