The Gender Gap in Sex Offender Punishment

  • Ryan T. ShieldsEmail author
  • Joshua C. Cochran
Original Paper



This paper tests theoretical arguments that suggest court actors hold gendered views of sex offenders that result in a gender gap in sex offender punishment, where women who commit sexual offenses are treated more leniently than their male counterparts.


We test this argument with precision matching analyses using 15 years of data on all felony sex offenders sentenced in a single state.


Results indicate that gender disparities in sex offender sentencing exist and are pervasive across sex offense types. Specifically, male sex offenders are more likely to be sentenced to prison, and given longer terms, than female sex offenders. Findings are similar across sex offense severity and whether the offense involved a minor victim.


These findings suggest that female sex offenders are treated more leniently than their matched male counterparts, even in instances of more serious sex offenses and those involving minor victims. Findings support theoretical arguments that contend that court decision-making is influenced by legally-irrelevant characteristics and raise questions about the source of gendered views of sex offenders and their effects on punishment approaches. Findings also raise questions about the virtue of get-tough sentencing policies that provide leeway for such dramatic variation across different groups of people.


Gender Punishment Sentencing Sex offender 



We thank Sam Scaggs for helpful consultation with the paper’s analyses, William Bales for consultation with the preparation of the paper’s dataset, and Daniel Mears for helpful comments on earlier drafts.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Criminology and Justice StudiesUniversity of Massachusetts LowellLowellUSA
  2. 2.School of Criminal JusticeUniversity of CincinnatiCincinnatiUSA

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