Sentencing disparity

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Sentencing disparity is defined as "a form of unequal treatment [in criminal punishment] that is often of unexplained cause and is at least incongruous, unfair and disadvantaging in consequence".[1]


Colloquially, situations wherein some criminals receive lighter criminal sentences or are held to a lesser standard of personal accountability is referred to as a slap on the wrist. The verbified form of such unequal treatment may be termed wrist slap, and alternative forms such as wristslap and wrist-slap.[2] As an adjective, such a justice system may be described as being two-tiered[3] or hybrid, both usually with negative connotations.[4] Lawyers who uphold such unfair principles within the legal system are sometimes designated with pejorative terms such as double standardist.[5]

Instances wherein women or cases have been perceived as upholding a gender disparity in sentencing have at times been labelled with derogatory terms such as pussy pass.[6]


It is important[according to whom?] to distinguish disparity from differences that arise due to legitimate use of discretion in the application of the law and those differences that arise due to discrimination or other, unexplained, causes unrelated to the issues found in the specific criminal case. There is evidence that some U.S. federal judges give much longer prison sentences for similar offenses than other judges do.[7]

This is a major problem because two judges could be faced with a similar case and one could order a very harsh sentence while another would give a much lesser sentence. A 2006 study by Crow and Bales gives evidence of sentencing disparity. The Florida Department of Corrections gave statistics of those prisoners who received probation or community control in the period 1990–1999. Prisoners were categorized as Blacks and Hispanics or Whites/Non-Hispanics. The study found that the Blacks and Hispanics received more intense and harsher penalties than the White/Non-Hispanic group.


A 2001 University of Georgia study found substantial disparity in criminal sentencing men and women received "after controlling for extensive criminological, demographic, and socioeconomic variables". The study found that in US federal courts, "blacks and males are... less likely to get no prison term when that option is available; less likely to receive downward departures [from the guidelines]; and more likely to receive upward adjustments and, conditioned on having a downward departure, receive smaller reductions than whites and females".[8]

In 2012 Sonja B. Starr from University of Michigan Law School found that "men receive 63% longer sentences on average than women do," and "[w]omen are…twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted", also based on data from US federal court cases.[9][10]

In 2006, Ann Martin Stacey and Cassia Spohn found that women receive more lenient sentences than men after controlling for presumptive sentence, family responsibilities, offender characteristics, and other legally relevant variables, based on examination of three US district courts.[11]

Racism and misandry[edit]

Some prison reform and prison abolition supporters have argued that race and gender are both valid reasons for disparity in sentencing. In 2016, Mirko Bagaric argued that African-Americans and Indigenous Australians should receive a sentencing discount in all but the most serious of crimes, in part to offset unacknowledged biases to the opposite effect, while women should "be treated more leniently when they commit the same crime as a man" - in this case, he did not make any exception for serious offending.[12] In the United Kingdom, Jean Corston's 2007 report planned as a "review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system" is described as making the case "that prisons should be scrapped for all but a tiny number of women",[13] which Corston justified on the basis "equality does not mean treating everyone the same". She proposed "Custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public" and that overt separate sentencing for men and women could be considered after then-pending equality legislation.[14] Some feminists argue that giving women lighter sentences is infantilizing, based on stereotyping, and incompatible with gender equality.[15][16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alfred Blumstein, et al. Research on Sentencing: The Search for Reform, Volume II (1983), p.9
  2. ^ Bandes, Susan. "Fear factor: The role of media in covering and shaping the death penalty." Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 1 (2003): 585.
  3. ^ Ainsworth, Janet E. "Youth justice in a unified court: Response to critics of juvenile court abolition." BCL Rev. 36 (1994): 927.
  4. ^ Hannah-Moffat, Kelly. "Moral agent or actuarial subject: Risk and Canadian women's imprisonment." Theoretical Criminology 3.1 (1999): 71-94.
  5. ^ Foschi, Martha. "Double standards for competence: Theory and research." Annual Review of Sociology 26.1 (2000): 21-42.
  6. ^ Gotell, Lise, and Emily Dutton. "Sexual Violence in the ‘Manosphere’: Antifeminist Men’s Rights Discourses on Rape." International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy 5.2 (2016): 65-80.
  7. ^ Secret, Mosi (5 March 2012). "Wide Sentencing Disparity Found Among U.S. Judges". New York Times. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  8. ^ Mustard, David B. (2001-03-06). "Racial, Ethnic and Gender Disparities in Sentencing: Evidence from the Us Federal Courts". Journal of Law and Economics. Rochester, NY. 44.
  9. ^ "Study finds large gender disparities in federal criminal cases". Retrieved 2016-12-06.
  10. ^ Starr, Sonja B. (2012-08-29). "Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases". Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. SSRN 2144002.
  11. ^ Ann Martin Stacey and Cassia Spohn, Gender and the Social Costs of Sentencing: An Analysis of Sentences Imposed on Male and Female Offenders in Three U.S. District Courts, 11 Berkeley J. Crim. L. 43 (2006).(DOI)
  12. ^ Bagaric, Mirko (1 June 2016). "Why we should close women's prisons and treat their crimes more fairly". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 27 April 2017.
  13. ^ "Crispin Blunt's enlightened views must be backed by cash". The Observer. London. 13 November 2011. Retrieved 27 April 2017.
  14. ^ "The Corston Report" (PDF). The Home Office. March 2007. Retrieved 27 April 2017.
  15. ^ Kelsey Mo. "Why feminists need to discuss gender disparity in the criminal justice system." 10/16/16 10:48pm The State Press.
  16. ^ Clare Foges. "Women must face the same justice as men." January 15 2018, 12:01am, The Times.

External links[edit]