Thursday, January 13, 2011

Does Justice system discriminate against men?

In most developed countries men can look forward to higher incomes than women, and a greater chance at ending up running the country.

But men also experience less well known disadvantages, particularly those men who come in contact with the Justice system.

It starts with sexual discrimination by police in "stop and search" events, when police search members of the public on suspicion of carrying some illegal substance. Police are strongly biased towards searching males, a discrimination that goes largely unmentioned as John Staddon of Duke University explains:

Age and sex profiling are essentially universal: police rarely stop women or old men; young males are favored. The reason is simple. Statistics in all countries show that a young man is much more likely to have engaged in criminal acts, particularly violent acts, than a woman or an older man. The same argument is sometimes advanced for racial profiling, stopping African-American drivers, or airline passengers of Arab appearance, more frequently than whites or Asians, for example, but in this context it is politically controversial.
As Staddon points out, the logic is obvious: since more men committ crimes than women it makes sense to disproportionately target men. When this logic is applied to racial groups, however, there is outrage, so that Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission complained vehemently last year about racial discrimination in stop and search events, while leaving the discrimination against men unmentioned.

Supposing, though, that a man is indeed guilty, is arrested for a crime and faces a court. In the UK the discrimination will continue, according to a 1997 Home Office report:

Women shoplifters were less likely than comparable males to receive a prison sentence. They were also more likely to be sentenced to a community penalty or to be discharged....

Men and women stood an equal chance of going to prison for a first violent offence. However among repeat offenders women were less likely to receive a custodial sentence.

Women first offenders were significantly less likely than equivalent men to receive a prison sentence for a drug offence, but recidivists were equally likely to go to prison.

Among first and repeat offenders, women convicted of violence and drug offences were always more likely to be discharged and men more likely to be fined.

This report continued that a 1995 survey of British magistrates showed them to view female criminals with greater sympathy than male criminals. Females were given sentences aimed at helping them lead law-abiding lives, rather than punishing them for their crimes.

This trend appears to have continued since the 1990s. Andrew Ashworth's Sentencing and Criminal Justice shows that 22% of adult women received discharges for indictable offences in 2006, compared with only 12% of adult men.

The US has a similar experience. A 2010 report by Victor Streib at Ohio University pointed out that women make up a disproportionately low number of death row inmates:

(1) Women account for about 10.0% of murder arrests annually;
(2) Women account for only 2.0% (167 / 8,292) of death sentences imposed at the trial level;
(3) Women account for only 1.7% (55 / 3,261) of persons presently on death row; and
(4) Women account for only 1.0.% (12 / 1,232) of persons actually executed in this modern era.

Since 1632 there are only 569 recorded executions of females in the US or its colonial predecessor, out of around 20,000 total executions. Since 1900 only 0.6% of all executions were of females. Streib goes into greater detail in other articles:

It appears that female offenders have always been treated differently from male offenders in the death penalty system, sometimes for reasons that are easily justifiable but too often simply because of sex bias.

Streib suggests two reasons for the disparity:

Obvious examples are using the felony murder rule and a past record of violent crime in considering the death sentence, both of which are more likely to put a man on death row than a woman, albeit perhaps for good reason. The second source of differential treatment may be subconscious, but certainly it is not benign. Examples here are assumptions that women who kill are more likely than men who kill to have been acting under emotional disturbance or under the domination of their co-felons.

In other words, at least some of the disparity comes from sexism, from different assumptions about the behaviour and motivations of men and women. He notes the "greater ability of almost all women to manifest their emotional side" than men in court, helping defence teams to present female killers as victims of emotional disturbance or duress.

Sexism, then, is a double-edged sword, robbing male criminals of the excuses common to females: that they committed crime to help their family, or under some terrible emotional distress. In Ireland the sexual disparity in punishments continues after sentencing.

The biggest prison for men in Ireland is Mountjoy, with a daily average of 632 prisoners in 2009. The biggest prison for women is the Dóchas Centre, with a daily average of 110 prisoners in 2009. A report by the Irish Prisons Expectorate in 2003 compared these two institutions:

...The first was of a system so old and seriously defective as to warrant immediate transformation or replacement as a matter of basic respect for the dignity and human rights of the prisoners and officers.... The sanitation facilities within it are deplorable and it is a disgrace that chamber pots (or indeed other types of receptacles e.g milk cartons) are in use with the “slop out” as part and parcel of everyday life.... The drug culture among so many of the prisoners is frightening.

Dóchas Centre
The visit to the Dóchas Centre provoked a response quite different from that which the visit to Mountjoy Prison engendered. The reasons are obvious: one moves from a seriously overcrowded regime operating in buildings more than a century and a half old to modern (albeit overcrowded) regime in new premises with state-of-the-art facilities.

Perhaps the very sexual stereotyping that leaves men in positions of political and financial authority at the top of society also exposes men to harsh discrimination at the very bottom of society.


  1. I assume that most judges are male. I wonder how much of an affect this has on the fate of a convicted felon with regard to their gender?

    Perhaps a male judges are more sympathetic to female convicts?

    Perhaps a female judge would not be so lenient on a female convict?

    I wonder.

  2. Yes I don't know, David, it's an interesting question alright. Perhaps if women make up a greater part of the justice system, punishments of female offenders will become more severe!

    1. In general, studies show that both men and women are more likely to help women and are more lenient to women than to men. There is no reason to think that this does not apply to people in the justice system just as much as it applies in the general public.


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