The Sentencing Gap: Why are Men More Likely to Go to Prison

Men are statistically more likely to go to prison than women for the same crime. Feminists and Men’s Rights Activists alike should be outraged.

by Liskula Cohen, Matt Rozsa

People forget that prisons aren’t always there to protect us; in fact, they often aren’t there to help us at all. When you have a primarily or entirely privatized penal system, prisons become a business and their primary reason for existing is to make money.

In America today the prison business is booming… and men are disproportionately paying the price.

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According to a recent study by Sonja Starr, an assistant law professor at the University of Michigan, men on average receive 63 percent longer prison sentences than women who commit comparable crimes. Reinforcing data accumulated from numerous other surveys on the subject, Starr also found that women are twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted of a crime – which may explain why 90% of the prison population is male – and estimated that the gender gap in sentencing could be as much as six times as large as that between white and non-whites (more on that in a moment). Despite this trend, the existing tendency among progressives has been to push for changes that only exacerbate the problem, such as the concerted effort among British feminists to abolish female prisons altogether.

These facts put advocates of prison reform in a tricky dilemma. On the one hand, leftists who point out that female convicts “often have poor mental health or are poorly educated, have not committed violence and have children to look after” aren’t wrong. However, because these same traits frequently apply to men who are convicted of crimes (indeed, a compelling case could be made that they describe a considerable fraction of our prison population), it speaks volumes that this data is used to widen the sentencing gender gap instead of confront how our sentencing system is fundamentally draconian.

After all, the gender gap is far from the only problem facing American prisons today. There is also the problem that police are more likely to target non-whites than whites, who are in turn less likely to be able to afford quality legal counsel. As a result, one out of every three black males born today will be incarcerated during their lifetime, as compared to one out of six Latino males and one out of 17 white males. According to the 2010 Census, almost one in ten black men between the ages of 20 and 34 were in prison; by contrast, the numbers for white men in the same bloc was roughly one in fifty. Needless to say, non-whites make up a majority of the more than 2.4 million people living behind bars as of March 2014, a number that is likely to be much higher than 3 million when you take recidivism rates into account.

Of course, because the American prison-industrial complex is incredibly lucrative (as of 2013 it was worth $70 billion), politicians are influenced by lobbyists for groups like the Corrections Corporation of America to create laws that put more people in jail rather than fewer, especially through tighter drug laws. As a result, Americans have been left with a penal system in which poor boys, particularly of color, are more likely to go to prison for the same crime as a rich white girl.

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In short, the issue of the prison-industrial complex is an intersectional one encompassing state corruption, capitalism run amok, race, and – when it comes to the heavier sentencing for men – gender inequality. So why isn’t the last issue receiving more attention?

“A lot of times these issues will get drowned out because of highly public fighting between Men’s Rights Activists and feminists, which winds up overshadowing the legitimate concerns that many MRAs have,” explained Adam Hollingsworth, a Men’s Rights Activist who was interviewed for this article. “The sentencing gap should be a large issue not only for Men’s Rights Activists, but for feminists. It is a clear example of how our justice system treats women as if they have less agency and are thus less accountable for their actions.”

The problem, it seems, is that it is often much easier to put men in jail. As Hollingsworth implicitly pointed out, the conventional assumption is that women can’t hack it in prison, whether because they need to raise families, or are too emotionally frail, or literally lack the physical strength to survive behind bars. Within this zeitgeist, a man who steps up and takes prison time for a woman can be depicted as chivalrous and noble; inversely, a man who expected a woman to do the same thing, meanwhile, would seem dishonorable and cowardly.

It must be emphasized that this story isn’t about calling women out for using the “woman card,” but about making sure that both genders are equally accountable for their actions. In America, the popular cliché among the law-and-order set is that “If you do the crime, you should do the time.” It says nothing about what you have in your pants, and any justice system that factors that into its decisions –knowingly or unknowingly – is reinforcing patriarchal assumptions that simultaneously demean women and are unjust to men. Logically speaking, there is no getting around the fact that in a free society, the same sentences should be meted out regardless of sex.

Instead truly meaningful prison reform should focus on (a) creating racial, gender, and economic equity in the distribution of justice and (b) cranking up pressure on politicians so that they will stop finding reasons to incarcerate people. Certainly we can start with lessening offenses on minor drug charges, particularly those involving marijuana; finding alternative methods of rehabilitation for juvenile offenders convicted of committing petty crimes, particularly those that focus on community participation and remembering that “it takes a village to raise a child”; and making sure that our prisons take the severity of a convict’s mental illness into account when determining how he or she should be treated during their incarceration.

If nothing else, however, any feminist should be outraged to know the statistics about the sentencing gap. It is proof that fellow human beings are receiving unjust and unequal treatment, even as it simultaneously demonstrates that our justice system has a misogynistic mentality based on outdated assumptions about women being the weaker sex. This is a cause in which feminists should find common cause with Men’s Rights Activists, in the same spirit that Emma Watson articulated to the United Nations last September: “Gender equality is your issue too.”

About Liskula Cohen, Matt Rozsa

Liskula Cohen is a Canadian-born former model who has worked in New York, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, and Sydney, among other cities. She is a feminist and loves every second of raising her amazing daughter as a single mother.

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published in “The Morning Call,” “The Express-Times,” “The Newark Star-Ledger,” “The Baltimore Sun,” and various college newspapers and blogs. He actively encourages people to reach out to him at matt.rozsa@gmail.com.

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