The Effects of Gender on Sentencing Decisions

Sentencing disparities between different groups in the criminal justice system are becoming more prominent, thus leading to more research on the differences in judicial sentencing. Both legal and extralegal factors have an effect on sentencing decisions. Factors such as the severity of the offense, details of the crime, prior convictions, bargaining, pleas, and sentencing guidelines are considered legal factors that impact case decisions Judges must consider all legal factors before handing down a sentence (Reitler, Sullivan & Frank 2013). Extralegal factors include demographics such as age, race, sex and, ethnicity.

During sentencing, extralegal factors may be more important than legal factors, unintentionally, leading to disparities in incarceration. (Reitler, Sullivan & Frank 2013).

Fernando, Curry and Lee’s 2006 study discovered that historically, gender has influenced sentencing decisions in the criminal court proceedings. Gender can be operationally defined as male, female, transgender and non-binary. In criminal sentencing, female offenders are less likely to be sentenced for crimes when compared to their male counterparts and are more likely to receive shorter, less severe sentencing.

More specifically white women are more likely to receive a more favorable sentence when compared to women of other races, and men (Fernando, Curry & Lee 2006).

Throughout the adjudication process, members of the courtroom work group practice discretion. Mallet (2015) described discretion as the idea that one has the right to choose how to act in any given situation. Judges traditionally use discretion to hand down appropriate sentences by looking at legal and extralegal factors of the case (Mallett, 2015). Foley and Powell’s (1982), research suggests that the sex of an offender effect whether a trial will be held, recommendations from the jury, and a judge’s final decision.

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The current research will consider if the gender of an offender influences the length of sentencing for those convicted of driving while intoxicated. More specifically, it will look at the differences between male and female sentencing decisions.

Variables Impacting Sentencing

Rodriguez, Curry and, Lee (2006) concluded in their study that although gender has an effect on sentencing decisions, judges take other mitigating factors into account when using discretion. The results of this study support that women tend to receive less harsh sentencing, only when it came to certain crimes. (Rodriguez, Curry, & Lee 2006). Female offenders received leniency for nonviolent crimes, but no preferential treatment for crimes typically carried out by males, such as violence. This study also determined that females typically received shorter sentencing than males across all crime types (Rodriguez, Curry, & Lee 2006). Spohn and Beichner’s (2000) study examined whether the gender of the offender leads to a more favorable treatment in sentencing decisions. This study concluded that female offenders are less likely to be incarcerated than males. The findings show that men are more likely than women to be incarcerated. This study also shows that other extralegal factors such as race, the seriousness of the crime, and previous history also affected the likelihood of incarceration (Spohn and Beichner 2000).

Engen and Gainey’s (2000)results from their study suggest that other factors that play a role in sentencing decisions include offender characteristics such as sex, race, and age impact sentencing decisions; case proceedings, the severity of the crime, and sentencing guidelines also explain the disparities in sentencing (Engen & Gainey 2000). Case proceedings refer to how the case is handled in court, such as testimony, statements, plea deals, etc. Racial factors have been shown to impact the likelihood and length of sentencing. Previous research conducted by Reitler, Sullivan, and Frank (2013), concludes that older, white, educated, and employed defendants are less likely to be incarcerated and legal factors have a higher influence on the detainment of offenders.

Court Room Practices

The characteristics of an offender may have an impact on sentencing decisions. A study conducted by Ball (2006), looked at the effect of offender characteristics on courtroom (plea) bargaining. Ball examined different demographics to see if they played a role in plea bargaining (pleading guilty for a lesser charge) and decisions on if charges were going to be brought against the defendant and if so, which charge (Ball 2006). Although Ball did not find any significant data to suggest a correlation between offender characteristics and lower sentence bargaining, other past research suggests differently (Ball 2006). Past research conducted by Foley and Powel (1982), shows that the offender characteristics effects how offenders are perceived and treated during the court process. Demographics such as age, race, economic status (lawyer), education are all factors that influence the outcome of a court decision (Foley & Powell, 1982). The sex of the offender and the victim (if any) have an effect on courtroom decisions and operation. Foley and Powell’s data showed that the two highest variables that affect the outcome of a court case are the sex of the offender and race. The sex and the race of the offender affected both the severity of sentencing from the jury and the severity of sentencing from the judge (Foley & Powell, 1982). The research also suggests age, race, and sex impacted whether or not the death sentence should be implemented (Foley & Powell 1982). Their data shows that young, black, males were more likely to receive less of a favorable court outcome, and oppositely, older women were more likely to receive a more favorable court outcome (Foley and Powell 1982).

Current Work

Previous work has shown that the criminal justice system has biases when sentencing (Fernando, et al. 2006; Reitler, et al. 2013; Spohn and Beichner 2000). Schwartz and Steffensmeier (2007), revealed that there has been an increase in arrest rates for women since the 1970s (as cited in Schwartz & Rookey (2008)). The increase in arrest rates is offense-specific and can be due to changes in policies. Sloan, Chepke and Davis, (2013) research shows that women are less likely to be arrested for a DWI than males; more specifically white females were less likely to be arrested for DWI over other groups.

The purpose of this study is to investigate the effect of gender on sentencing decisions, specifically concerning driving while intoxicated. The current research will consider the effect gender of the offender influences the length and likelihood of sentencing of an individual convicted of driving while intoxicated. More specifically, we will look at the differences between male and female sentencing decisions. The primary hypothesis for this research is that students who received a scenario with the female offender will give her a lighter sentence than those who received a male offender (see appendix A). A secondary hypothesis is based on the manipulation check given to participants (see appendix F). Those who gave a harsher sentence recalled the gender of the individual depicted in the scenario they received at a greater rate.


The participants in the current study included students taking research methods at the College of Brockport. There will be a total of 23 student participants, convenience sampling will be used to recruit participants. Lab credit was offered for participation.


Independent variable scenario. Participants received one of two identical scenarios, except the name and gender pronouns are changed to manipulate the perceived gender of the individual. Each participant was asked to read a scenario about either a male or a female (see Appendix A and B) who committed the same crime. After the scenario, they were given a dependent variable-Likert 9-point scale to assign a sentencing length for the individual depicted. They were asked to give the person in the scenario a sentence from 1 to 9. (1= minimum; 5 = middle; 9= maximum). This scenario took approximately 1 minute to read and the scale took less than 1 minute to complete. The scale is based on a previous study conducted in 2010 by Ratcliff et al.

The Social and Economics Conservative Scale. The Social and Economics Conservative Scale is a 14-item scale that assesses political conservatism of the participant and was developed by Everett (2013; see Appendix C). This scale asks participants to rate 14 different issues from 0 to 8 (0 = greater negativity, 8 = greater positivity; 4= neutral). This questionnaire will take approximately 2 minutes to complete. The SECS scale’s reliability was measured to be .88 (Everett 2013). Participants were asked to rate issues ranging from abortion to gun ownership.

Demographic Questionnaire. Participants completed a 4-question survey regarding their demographics. The questionnaire contains only restricted questions that ask about gender, current year of study, questions regarding family or friends in the criminal justice system, and knowledge about gender disparities (see Appendix D). This took approximately 2 minutes to complete.

Attitudes Towards Women Scale. Participants were given a 25-question scale, in which they were asked to rate their feelings from A to D. (A = agree strongly; D= disagree strongly). This scale was developed by Spence, Helmrich, and Stapp (1978, see Appendix E), to measure the beliefs about roles women should have in society. The scale asks participants to rate things such as obscenity, sexual behavior, employment, marriage, rights, leadership, etc. For example, on a rating scale of agree strongly to disagree strongly, participants were asked to rate the following statement: “Women should be concerned with their duties of childbearing and house tending rather than desires for professional or business careers”. This questionnaire has a reliability of .87 and .89 (Byrne, Felker, Vacha-Haase, & Rickard 2011). This questionnaire took approximately 4 minutes to complete.

Manipulation Check

Each participant was given a manipulation check after all other questionnaires and scales are given. The manipulation check consisted of3 question which asked if the individual in their given scenario was either male or female, the type of crime committed, and whether or not the individual was arrested. For the manipulation check, participants were asked a set of questions that contained 5 yes or no questions, 2 multiple choice questions, and an open-ended question (see Appendix F). This took participants approximately 2 minutes to complete.


The participants for this study were selected using convenient sampling of students currently enrolled in the research methods course at SUNY College at Brockport. The study was conducted during lab time in the same room during class time, the incentive for this study is 10 points towards the final grade. The participants consented to this study, and received a data packet with all materials such as the independent variable manipulation with the dependent variable rating scale attached (see Appendix A and B), the Social and Economic Conservatism Scale (see Appendix C), a demographic questionnaire (see Appendix D), the Attitudes Towards Women Scale (see Appendix E) and a manipulation check (see Appendix F). This data packet was completed with fellow classmates, in the presence of the instructor and researchers. The participants returned the packets to the instructor.


The demographic questionnaire was used to get background information on all participants. Collected data included information such as gender, knowledge of the criminal justice system, year in school, and major. The frequency of gender and college year were collected, as well as the frequency of each independent variable scenario. The frequencies for gender include 4 male and 13 female participants. For year in college, 1 first-year student, 4 second-year students, 5 third-year students, 5 fourth year students, and 2 fifth year students.
Descriptive statistics were taken for year in college (M=3.18, SD= 1.13), with the average participant being a third-year student. Responses to the Social and Economic Conservative Rating Scale (M=4.41, SD=.54) indicate that the average participant being neutral, neither conservative or its counterpart. The Attitudes Toward Women Scale’s data (M= 3.49, SD= .35), showed that the majority of the subjects have a profeminist view. Random assignment was used when giving the independent variable scenario, 8 participants received the male scenario and 9 participants received the female scenario.

The primary hypothesis of this study was students who received a scenario with the female offender will give her a lighter sentence than those who received a male offender. An independent t-test was conducted for the dependent variable scale where participants handed down a sentence. The data shows that there was not a significant difference in the male subject scenario (M= 4.41, SD= 3.27) and the female scenario group (M=3.78, SD= 1.30), t(17)= .294, p > .05. The direction of the means supported our hypothesis, showing that females received a less harsh sentence than males (see Figure 1). Figure 1 shows the sentencing differences for the male subject versus the female subject. The standard mean for both scenarios was M=3.94, SD= 2.36. For the subscales given to participants, the reliability measured for the Social and Economic Conservatism Rating Scale (Everett 2012), was found to be unreliable (.142). The economic based questions in this scale were also found to be unreliable (.434) but for socially based questions, the reliability was .665. The Reliability for the Attitudes Toward Women’s Scale of this study was measured to be .662. The low reliability of the tests could be due to missing data from participants who left the questions unanswered, and because two participants were excluded from the study.

The secondary hypothesis stated that those who gave a harsher sentence recalled the gender of the individual depicted in the scenario that they received. A correlation test was conducted. The results indicate an insignificant negative relationship between the recollection of the individual described in the scenario and the harshness of sentencing for the individual, (r=-.152, p < .05). The correlation was not in the predicted direction, and did not support the second hypothesis.


This research was conducted to test if the gender of an individual impacted the harshness of their sentences for driving while intoxicated. The two hypotheses tested proved to be insignificant, with one being negatively correlated with the research. Although the average length of sentencing was going in the direction that supported the hypothesis, the data indicated a nonsignificant relationship between the two variables. This could be caused by a variety of reasons. The number of participants who completed the independent variable scenario did was not equal to the number of participants who answered the manipulation check. The average participant followed a neutral political ideology and had profeminist views. This possibly could explain why the average number of participants sentenced the individual to a moderate sentence, closer to the middle of the scale. Data also showed that lower feminist scores also had lower sentencing compared to the others.

Limitations that affected this study mainly include sample characteristics. The sample was selected using a convenient sample of students in the research methods course, which was a small sample size. Since the sample size was small and limited to research method students, the representativeness of the population was not accurate. Multiple participants did not answer all questions included in the data packet, and two participants were excluded due to discussing their answers with each other. Another limitation of this study includes an uneven ratio of male and female participants; there is a significantly higher female participant rate than males. The gender and name of the individual depicted in the independent variable sample differed, which could have skewed data; a unisex name would have given more accurate information, specifically for the manipulation check.

Future research should look at the limitations of this study and also focus on non-significant results of the dependent variable. Increasing the number of participants and expanding outside of the convenient sample may be an added benefit for future works. Another suggestion would be to change the crime indicated in the independent variable sample. A previous study conducted by Spohn and Spears (1997), concluded that females had a more positive court outcome and experience overall compared to men. The results showed that the rate of prosecution, incarceration, and length of sentencing was more favorable for women than men for violent felonies.

Additionally, future research should consider other demographic variables such as the race of the assailant. The current study did not exam race, because the sample size was limited, adding race would allow for the identification of participants. Wooldredge (2012) examined the relationship between race and sentencing decisions and release. This data suggests that race may have an effect on the outcome of sentencing; black Americans are disproportionately more likely to receive less favorable conditions for sentencing decisions and pretrial release (Wooldredge 2012).

The current research examined the effect gender had on sentencing length in a crime scenario where the individual depicted was charged with driving while intoxicated. The results came back insignificant, but the means of the scores supported our hypothesis in a positive direction. Although results were insignificant, this research may help for future research in sentencing disparities. Sentencing disparities based on offender characteristics such as gender should be further researched to explain the disparities in sentencing.

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The Effects of Gender on Sentencing Decisions. (2020, Nov 11). Retrieved from

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