Sex Ratios Within Criminal Justice Systems World-Wide

face of a prisoner

Gender equality has been an important concern in criminal justice systems. A century and a half ago, women faced great obstacles to participating in legal professions and holding important public offices. Nearly all legislators, prosecutors, and judges in formal public offices were men. Since then, with the help of greater public concern for gender equality and affirmative public policies, the sex ratio among these officials has moved toward equality. Reducing the ratio of men to women among public officials who define crimes and administer justice is a story of courageous reformers waging public struggles for justice and equality.^ ^ For prisoners, who are at the punishing end of administering justice, there is no such story.

Sex Ratios Across Justice-System Groups, 1977-2006

groupmedian sex ratiosnumber of reporting jurisdictions
Note: Sex ratios are men per woman. Data from United Nations surveys, CTS2 and CTS10
c. 1977c. 2006c. 1977c. 2006
prison staff12.14.23856

Among major groups within criminal justice systems, prisoners have by far the most unequal numbers by sex. The United Nations Tenth Survey of Crime Trends provides the most recent and comprehensive publicly available data on the sex ratios for police, prosecutors, judges, prison staff, and prisoners. This survey provides data on these groups for about 60 responding countries or jurisdictions about the year 2006. Among countries providing data, judges, magistrates, and prosecutors had a median sex ratio of 1.5 men per woman. Prison staff and police had median sex ratios of 4.2 and 7.9, respectively. Prisoners had a median sex ratio of 19.0 men per woman.

Sex inequality in criminal justice systems is greater for lower-status groups. Judges, magistrates, and prosecutors hold highly-respected positions. They have the sex ratios closest to equal. Prisoners are commonly considered to be defective or evil human beings. The sex ratio of prisoners is extremely unequal. Prison staff and police have greater social prestige than prisoners, and less sex inequality in their numbers. Prison staff and police have less social prestige than judges. They also have greater sex inequality in group compositions than do judges.

In recent decades, the sex ratio of judges has shifted more rapidly toward sex equality than has the sex ratio of prisoners. Based on United Nations surveys of criminal justice systems worldwide, the median sex ratio of judges fell from 11.5 men per woman about 1977 to 1.5 men per woman about 2006. The corresponding median sex ratio ratio for prisoners declined from 28.8 to 19.0 across that same period. Those figures are for sets of reporting jurisdictions that differ between judges and prisoners, and between 1977 and 2006. However, the pattern across 14 jurisdictions reporting both judges and prisoners in both 1977 and 2006 is similar. The sex ratio of judges fell proportionally much more from 1977 to 2006 than did the sex ratio of prisoners.

The sex composition of parliaments has also shifted more rapidly toward sex equality than has the sex composition of prisons. The sex ratio of parliamentary representatives is for national lawmaking bodies, as they report to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The sex ratio of parliamentary representatives and the sex ratio of prisoners are available about 2003 and 2010 for jurisdictions covering 90% of the world’s population. From 2003 to 2010, the median sex ratio for parliaments fell from 7.3 to 4.5 men in parliament per woman in parliament. The median sex ratio for prisoners dropped from 23.7 to 20.7 men in prison per woman in prison. Both in the level of sex inequality and the reduction of sex inequality, the sex ratio among persons defining criminal laws looks much different from the sex ratio among persons being punished for violating those laws.

Extremely unequal sex ratios make the criminal justice system appear biased and inhumane. Writing about the U.S., a legal scholar observed:

It is phenomenal that in 2005 there are seventeen women state chief justices and that women judges have already been major change agents in the justice system, including leading the national gender bias task force movement to eliminate sex-based bias in the courts. … Overall, there is surprise and delight in the unexpectedly rapid rise of women in the judiciary and a clear sense of women judges as change agents working … to humanize the courts.^

Men judges are, of course, human beings. Most human communities of everyday working, relaxing, eating, and sleeping include roughly equal numbers of men and women. A roughly equal human sex ratio in that sense humanizes a sphere of activity. The rise of women judges hasn’t humanized prisons.

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