Why do female criminals get lighter sentences than men?
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as of June 2015 there were over 36,000 prisoners in all states and territories across Australia. Of that 92% of the prisoners were men compared to only 8% who were women. Not only are females vastly underrepresented in the prison system in Australia, males (8.6%) are also twice as likely than females (4.2%) to be given a full-time prison term.
In 2006, Natalina D’Addario a female teacher was sentenced to four months in jail after being found guilty of performing sex acts with one of her male students who was a minor at the time. Karen Ellis, another female teacher in Melbourne was sentenced to six months in jail after pleading guilty to having sex with a 15-year-old male student in 2003.
In comparison however, Noel McNamara, Crime Victims Support Association president stated in an interview with the Herald Sun, “if a male had molested a 15-year-old girl he would have received a much harsher sentence” than the sentencing that was given to the two female teachers.
Do female offenders generally receive shorter sentences than men?
Are our courts inherently biased in favour of women?
What are the factors associated with the discrepancies between male and female sentencing?
One reason that female offenders get lighter sentences than men may be because men tend commit more serious offences than women. For example, the Victorian Sentencing Council reveals the following gender breakdown in offences:
“Men predominate in offences such as assault (11.8% of men versus 7.5% of women), sex offences (18.5% versus 3.5%) and unlawful entry with intent (burglary) (11.0% versus 6.0%), while women most commonly appear in prison with property offences (including theft) (21% of women versus 6.1% of men) and deception offences (10.0% versus 3.1%).”
Even though there has been a steady increase in female offending over the past few years, murder and other violent crimes are still generally under the domain of men and the offending pattern of women is different than that of men. Females tend to commit offences that are of less danger to others such as shoplifting, drug offences or fraud related offences in comparison to their male counterparts. Liddell and Martinovic point out that historically, “women unlike men infrequently resort to violence.”
Another factor that is considered when sentencing an offender is whether or not the offender has a prior record. Females (53.9%) are less likely to have a prior record than men (38.2%). For this reason as well as others, more women than men are released on good behaviour or dismissals. Both of which do not require a conviction to be recorded.
Should we treat female offenders different from male offenders?
Female criminals are very often seen in a different light than that of male criminals…their history of victimisation/abuse highlighted and taken into account and given more weight more often than that of male offenders who commit similar offences.
According to Freudenberg, Willets & Green, “incarcerated women typically have a history of unmet social, educational, health, and economic needs, in addition to a history of victimisation,” which may be why women more than men tend to commit substance abuse and drug related offences . As a result, the trends in female offending cannot be considered in isolation.
Many female offenders have a history of sexual or physical abuse. The fact that the majority of offences committed by women are either drug or according to Richie “nonviolent ‘survival crimes’ that women commit to earn money, feed a drug-dependent habit, or escape terrifying intimate relationships and brutal social conditions” highlights that the “needs of women in the criminal justice system are different from, greater than, and more complex than those of men.” A good example of this is the fact that “a history of mental health problems was more common among female (62%) than male entrants (47%)” (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).
Also, female offenders tend to be more marginalized and poor than male offenders. In 2008 the Australian Institute of Criminology reported 75% of women incarcerated were in receipt of welfare or government benefits 30 days prior to their arrest.
Being a mother will lead to a shorter term of imprisonment
Another issue with incarcerating females is that detention does not only impact the female offender. Two thirds of women in prison are the primary caregivers of dependent children so their incarceration directly impacts their children as well. It is possible that the judicial system takes this as well as the above described factors into consideration when sentencing women and many argue that this gender difference in sentencing is necessary in order to protect the human rights of female offenders.