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Gender and Sentencing of Drug Offenders: Is Chivalry Dead?

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice Policy Review Volume: 9 Issue: 3-4 Dated: September/December 1998 Pages: 365-399
Cassia Spohn
Date Published
35 pages
This study compares the likelihood of incarceration for males and females convicted of drug offenses in Chicago.
The original project selected a random sample of all offenders convicted of felonies in 1993 from a list prepared by the Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court. Data collectors reviewed the court file for each case in the sample and recorded information about the offender and the case on an optical-scan form designed for the project. The original data file included 2,983 felony offenders. For this project, the study selected all offenders (n=1,544) for whom the most serious conviction charge was a drug offense; this included 1,400 male offenders and 154 female offenders. The study also interviewed a purposive sample of judges, prosecutors, and public defenders in Cook County. Respondents were asked to discuss their sentencing philosophies, to identify the factors that influenced their determination of the appropriate sentence, to describe the charging and plea bargaining process in their particular jurisdiction, and to identify areas in need of reform. The findings show that male drug offenders faced substantially higher odds of incarceration than female drug offenders; in fact, males were more than twice as likely as females to be sentenced to prison. Although this large and statistically significant difference in the likelihood of incarceration suggests that Cook County judges take gender into consideration when deciding whether to send the offender to prison or not, there are other male/female differences that might explain this finding; for example, female offenders were somewhat less likely than male offenders to be convicted of the most serious drug offenses and were somewhat more likely to be convicted of the least serious offenses. Males were convicted more often for cocaine offenses, and females were convicted more often for heroin offenses. Female offenders also had less serious prior criminal records than male offenders. Also, males were nearly twice as likely as females to be detained in jail prior to trial. These findings suggest that females are sentenced to prison for drug offenses less frequently than males, not because of their gender, but because of their types of offenses and less serious prior criminal records compared to males. The study did find that gender affected the likelihood of incarceration only among offenders without a prior drug conviction. Thus, although judges may view female first offenders as less culpable, less dangerous, and more amenable to rehabilitation than male first offenders, they perceive all repeat drug offenders, women as well as men, as likely to be habitual offenders and as good candidates for a prison sentence. 4 tables and 61 references


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