An Empirical Analysis of the Paternalism Hypothesis in Probation Supervision

Patricia M. Harris, University of Texas - San Antonio

Prior research notes that female offenders receive more favorable treatment at the time of sentencing than their male counterparts. The most common explanation for leniency is that decision-makers' chivalrous or paternalistic views of females shape the choice of punishments. Feminist criminologists who refute the chivalry/paternalism hypothesis point out that paternalism effects diminish when more precise measures of offense seriousness and defendants' familial circumstances (e.g., the need to care for dependents) are taken into account. This paper presents a new empirical examination of the chivalry/paternalism hypothesis. The new research differs from previous studies in two ways. First, it examines subjects already sentenced to probation supervision. Decisions regarding the disposition of offenders who violate community supervision are subject to greater discretion than are sentencing decisions. Second, because more elaborate classification of offenders occurs at the start of probation supervision than takes place prior to sentencing, probation decision-makers (who include both officers and judges) have access to much more information regarding the offender's risk and needs than do judges at the time of sentencing. The sample used in this analysis consists of the entire cohort of 3,598 offenders who entered felony probation in Texas during October 1991, tracked over three years.

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Updated 05/20/2006