Racial and Gender Disparities in Prison Sentences: The Effect of District-Level Judicial Demographics

Posted: 17 Feb 2005


Studies of federal prison sentences consistently find unexplained racial and gender disparities in the length of sentence and in the probability of receiving jail time and departures from the Sentencing Guidelines. These disparities disfavor blacks, Hispanics, and men. A problem with interpreting these studies is that the source of the disparities remains unidentified. The gravest concern is that sentencing disparities are the result of prejudice, but other explanations have not been ruled out. For example, wealth and quality of legal counsel are poorly controlled for and are undoubtedly correlated with race. This paper uses the political, racial, and gender composition of the district court bench to estimate the effect of judicial demographics on sentencing and on observed racial and gender disparities. The evidence presented here suggests that judicial demographics have little influence on prison sentences in general, but do impact racial and gender disparities. The findings regarding gender in the case of serious offenses are quite striking: the greater the proportion of female judges in a district, the lower the gender disparity for that district. I interpret this as evidence of a paternalistic bias among male judges that favors women. The racial composition of the bench has mixed effects that are open to different interpretations. The race and gender results suggest, however, that a judge's background affects his or her sentencing decisions. Finally, there is little evidence that the political composition of the district affects sentencing disparities.

Keywords: Discrimination, Law, Justice, Criminal, Procedure, Law and Economics

JEL Classification: J1, J15, J18, K00, K14, K42, K41

Suggested Citation

Schanzenbach, Max Matthew, Racial and Gender Disparities in Prison Sentences: The Effect of District-Level Judicial Demographics. Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 57-92, January 2005. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=668544

Max Matthew Schanzenbach (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics