Dear Healthy Men: I’ve been reading about actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, who were recently sentenced for their part in the college admissions scandal. What really struck me was the difference in their sentences. She got two months in prison, a $150,000 fine, and some community service. He got five months in prison, a $250,000 fine, and more than twice as much community service. Why did they get such different sentences?
A: In the case of Lori Loughlin and Mossimo GIannulli, it’s hard to say exactly. According to the prosecutors, although Loughlin was “fully complicit” in the scheme to bribe and cheat their daughter’s way into college, Giannulli was “the more active participant” and deserved a harsher sentence. For the sake of argument, let’s take the prosecutors’ word.
That said, there’s good reason to believe that even if prosecutors thought that Loughlin and Giannulli were equally guilty, she would have received a much lighter sentence. In fact, if Loughlin and Giannulli weren’t so famous, she might have gotten off entirely.
It all starts with the police and prosecutors. Across the board, when committing the identical crime (except prostitution) women are less likely than men to be arrested. And that applies “regardless of other factors, such as serious victim injury and weapon use,” according to Lisa Stolzenberg, a researcher at Florida International University.
Women they are arrested, women are “46 percent less likely than men to be held in jail prior to trial,” and women who are released on bail post bonds that are an average of “54 percent lower than what men were required to pay.” It gets worse from there.
After trial, men are more than twice as likely to be sentenced to jail or prison, according to Theodore Curry, a researcher at the University of Texas at El Paso. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to get probation, fines, or community service. When they are sentenced, those sentences are far shorter. Curry found that for violent crimes, “males receive sentences that average 4.49 years longer than do females, while for property and drug offenses this difference shrinks to 3.14 and 2.35 years, respectively.”
Some people have argued that men’s longer sentences reflect the more serious nature of their crimes, previous arrests, or of their longer criminal histories. Sonja Starr, a professor at the University of Chicago law school disagrees. She found that even after controlling for those and other factors, “men receive 63 percent longer sentences on average than women do.”
To put that into some perspective, the male-female sentencing disparity is more than three times larger than the 19.1 percent Black-White disparity found by the United States Sentencing Commission.
The big question, of course, is why women are treated less harshly than men. Many experts put the blame on paternalism or chivalry, which, rather condescendingly, paints women as less capable than men of making their own choices or sees their criminal behavior as being caused by a mental defect. Police officers, prosecutors, judges, and juries may also be reluctant to take a mother away from her children. Either way, the theory goes, women aren’t responsible for their actions and therefore need to be protected by shielding them from arrest, prosecution, and the consequences of their crimes.
So, should we start punishing women as severely as men? Absolutely not. The US already has the highest imprisonment rate of any country in the world and the last thing we need is more people behind bars. Instead, we need to start giving men the same benefit of the doubt that we give women. And we need to start seeing men as just as worthy of redemption and forgiveness as women, just as important to their children and communities as women are to theirs, and just as capable of rehabilitation.