Variation in the Gender Gap in Imprisonment in the U.S.

Karen Heimer, University of Iowa
Halime Unal, University of Iowa
Joseph B. Lang, University of Iowa
Thomas D. Stucky, University of Iowa

Rates of imprisonment in the United States have increased dramatically over recent decades. This increase has been even more pronounced in the imprisonment of women than men. The media has suggested that this trend results from criminal justice policy changes, particularly mandatory penalties for drug crimes. However, empirical research has not yet tested this explanation vis-a-vis other possible explanations. In this paper, we first document the gender gap in imprisonment, assessing variation across states as well as over time. We then assess several potential explanations for variation in the gender gap in imprisonment, including the changes in women's and men's crime rates, the changing economic circumstances of women, and changing penalties for drug offending. We use pooled cross-sectional time-series data from a sample of states and mixed models for estimating random and fixed effects.

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Updated 05/20/2006