Michelle Kilfoyle and Arnaud Philippe
17 November 2021
The criminal justice system represents a rare sector of society where women fare better than men. Female criminals are less likely to be arrested, sent to court and sentenced than male offenders, even for equivalent crimes. Where women are sentenced, their punishments are usually less severe.
New research concludes that the differences in sentencing for men and women are due to gender stereotyping of defendants in court. Protective, paternalistic attitudes of male judges towards female defendants seem to be a key reason for the more lenient punishments handed to women.
Official statistics from France, the UK and the USA all show the preferential treatment of women throughout the criminal justice system. The new study, by Arnaud Philippe of the University of Bristol’s School of Economics and Centre for Evidence-based Public Services (CEPS), draws on criminal court data to both confirm and quantify genuine differences between sentences for men and women in France, and to find reasons for this gender gap.
Philippe analysed data for 1.37 million convictions in France between 2000 and 2003 for a criminal category called delits in French. This covers most forms of crime: property crimes, violent crimes, economic crimes, insults, drug-related crimes and road-related offenses.
The average prison sentence for men was 47 days, and 19 days for women. Having accounted for the influence of non-gender factors on sentencing, such as the form of crime, the defendant’s history of criminal activity and their socioeconomic characteristics, the study found that gender was responsible for a 15-day difference in sentence lengths for men and women. Women were also slightly more likely to receive suspended prison sentences.
Digging deeper into the data, Philippe homed in on court cases featuring just two people on trial, one man and one woman, convicted of the same crime. This enabled an even clearer picture of just how gender influences sentencing when other factors are equal, in particular, the judges and prosecutor working on the trial, and the trial’s time and place.
The sentencing gender gap was even more striking for these 2382 mixed-gender pairs. Women’s prison sentences were, on average, 25.6 days shorter than men’s and their probation sentences 2.4 days shorter. Men received longer prison sentences even if their female partner had a longer history of committing crimes – a factor normally associated with harsher sentencing.
Notably, the differences between sentences for men and women were smaller in trials with more female judges in court. Three judges work on each court case for delits, and an increase in the share of female judges of around 20% was associated with 1.5 days longer prison sentences for women, and 1.7 days longer probation. The gender of the prosecutor had no influence on sentencing rates or harshness.
The study’s findings suggest that gender stereotyping by judges was the main driver of the sentencing gender gap. Drawing on wider evidence from the US, Philippe points to the influence of paternalism among male judges, who may view women as fragile and perhaps less able to cope with prison.
These results reflect a common pattern in society whereby individuals tend to discriminate less against people of a similar demographic to themselves. In this case, female judges were less likely to positively discriminate towards female criminals.
The results do not support other possible explanations for the disparities, such as the need to adhere to the criminal code. This might, conceivably, see mothers treated less harshly for their
children’s sake as part of judges’ obligations to protect society, for instance, but this was not shown by the data.
As well as providing clear evidence of discrimination between men and women in court, the study also demonstrates the broader value of diversity among decision makers in reducing discrimination