Increases in gender equality in education linked to declines in female incarceration rates

American Society of Criminology

Women in the United States have made dramatic gains toward equality with men over the past half century, but this progress has occurred alongside tremendous growth in U.S. incarceration rates. A new study examined how gender equality in education, labor force participation, and political representation is associated with disparities in annual prison admissions. The study found that increases in gender equality in higher education were associated with decreases in female prison admission rates relative to male rates.

The study, by researchers at Oklahoma State University (OSU) and the University of Georgia (UGA), appears in Criminology, a publication of the American Society of Criminology.

“We sought to provide a baseline account of the significance and direction of the relations between several important markers of gender equality and the sex gap in prison admission rates over time,” explains Heather McLaughlin, associate professor of sociology at OSU, who led the study. “Previous research suggests that increasing gender equality may have an ameliorative effect for women or, alternatively, may provoke backlash, so our basic question was: How is the increasing status of women in these three domains associated with patterns of incarceration?”

In the United States, incarceration rates of males dwarf those of females, but since 1980, female rates have risen more steeply than male rates, in part due to the war on drugs. This growth raises questions about how women’s increased social and economic status may contribute to changing patterns of punishment.

In this study, researchers used data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Current Population Survey, and other U.S. sources from 1983 to 2010 to estimate the ratio of female-to-male annual prison admission rates, as well as sex-specific rates, disaggregated by violent, property, and drug crimes. They also examined the sex gap in rates of prison admissions per arrest and assessed the association of gender equality measures with sex-specific rates of prison admissions.

The study found dramatic societal changes in labor force participation, educational attainment, and political representation over the three decades studied. The largest gains occurred in the female-to-male ratio of four-year college completion. Advances also occurred in labor force participation by women and, to a smaller extent, in the ratio of females to males elected to state House and Senate seats.

The study’s results varied by type of gender equality and offense, but overall, it found a robust association between educational attainment and lower prison admission rates for females relative to males: Greater equality in higher education was associated with a widening of the sex gap in incarceration rates, particularly for property offenses. In sex-specific models, gender equality in higher education was associated with lower rates of prison admissions for females, but not males.

The study’s authors offer several explanations for why this may have occurred, among them as women gain status and participate in major social institutions at increasing rates, this cultural shift can affect how they are treated in the criminal justice system. In addition, income from labor force participation, increased human and social capital from greater educational attainment, and greater political clout for women may improve their access to legal resources, which could be associated with reductions in punishment. Moreover, structural gender equality may also influence criminal justice reform in ways that positively affect women.

“Our finding about education indicates that gains in human and social capital accrued from greater equality in that realm might benefit females in sentencing,” notes Sarah Shannon, associate professor of sociology at UGA, who coauthored the study. “This suggests at least one mechanism through which increasing gender equality might contribute to an ameliorative effect on the sex gap in incarceration.”

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