Variation in the Gender Ration of Criminal Punishment: An Analysis of States, 1978-1998

Halime Unal, Mugla University/University of Iowa
Karen Heimer, University of Iowa

Although there has a resurgence of interest in studying trends in criminal punishment in recent years, there has been no attention in the Academic literature to changes in the gender ration of imprisonment or probation. The aim of this paper is to address this gap in the literature by studying the factors associated with variations in the gender ration of imprisonment and probation across states, from 1978 to 1998. To inform our analysis, we draw on (a) political economy arguments and Garland (1985)'s concept of the "penal-welfare complex", (b) feminist perspectives on the social control of women, and (c) research on the changing economic circumstances of women compared to men. We use annual state-level data and estimate fixed-effects models to predict variations in the gender ratios of imprisonment and probation, across states and over time. We find that as the proportion of poor women in the population increases, relative to the proportion of poor men, the gender ration of criminal punishment increases. In addition, we find some support tfor the argument that criminal justice intervention in the lives of women is somewhat reduced when other social control mechanisms, such as welfare, are increased. We also find suggestive evidence that the war on drugs may have penalized somen ever more than men.

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Updated 05/20/2006