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Males Get Longer Sentences than Females for Same Crime
April 23, 2002
by Marc Angelucci

When Etta Ann Urdiales was murdered in Colorado, two completely different juries convicted two different people of the crime. Both juries believed there was only one murderer. One convicted Bobbie Hogan, a woman. The other convicted Jess Jacobs, a man. She got 10 years in prison. He was put to death.

This case is just one example of the rampant discrimination men face in criminal courts throughout the United States.

According to Pradeep Ramanathan, vice president of the National Coalition of Free Men (NCFM), a volunteer, non-profit organization that has explored and addressed men's issues since 1976, "All the research clearly demonstrates that gender is the most significant biasing factor in determining whether or not someone will be charged, prosecuted, indicted and sentenced, as well as determining the severity of the sentence."

And Ramanathan is right.

Department of Justice figures show that being male increases a murderer's chance of receiving a death sentence by more than 20 times. And the data repeatedly confirms that men receive higher sentences than women for the exact same crime.

One study, published in Justice Quarterly in 1986, examined 181,197 felonies in California and found that, for the same crime, being male increased the chance of incarceration by 165 percent. Being black, in comparison, increased the chance of incarceration by 19 percent.

Another study, published in Crime & Delinquency in 1989, examined non-accomplice crimes and factored together the number of charges, convicted offenses, prior felony convictions, as well as the race, age, work history and family situation of the accused and found that "gender differences, favoring women, are more often found than race differences, favoring whites."

In yet another study, published in the International Journal of the Sociology of Law, researchers Mathew Zingraff and Randall Thomson found that being male increases sentence lengths more than any other discriminatory variable.

The bias applies to victims as well as the accused. When Edward Glaeser of Harvard University and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth College examined 2,800 homicide cases randomly drawn from 33 urban counties by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, they found that killing a female instead of a male increased sentences by 40.6 percent. Killing a white instead of a black, in comparison, increased sentences by 26.8 percent.

Even when the exact same type of crime is accounted for, the disparities still persist. For example, a drunk driver who kills a black male receives an average sentence of two years. A drunk driver who kills a white male, four years. A drunk driver who kills a white female, six years.

To those who recognize the problem, gender stereotypes are a major culprit. In a 1991 NCFM report titled "Gender and Injustice," researchers John Ryan and Ian Wilson suggest the problem stems from stereotypes about women being more innocent, more reformable and less dangerous than men. Barbara Swartz, former Director of New York's Women's Prison Project, called it the "chivalry factor" and says, "If there were more women judges, more women would go to jail."

Others attribute the problem to the devaluing of male lives.

But addressing the causes does little good when the public does not even recognize the problem. One reason we don't is that the task forces we appoint to investigate the problem are just as biased as the legal system they are supposed to monitor, so a full picture of the bias never gets drawn.

In 1980, the National Organization for Women and the National Association of Women Judges formed the National Judicial Education Program to Promote Equality for Women and Men in the Courts (NJEP). In 1986, they wrote "Operating a Task Force on Gender Bias in the Courts: A Manual for Action," which became the manual used by gender bias task forces nationwide. The manual opens by stating that gender bias operates more frequently against women and that it is not a contradiction for task forces to focus primarily on bias against women in courts.

As one might guess, this is exactly what the task forces do.

"None of (the commissions) study bias against men," said Ramanathan.

For example, even though men are more likely to get prison and women to get probation for the same crime, a New York task force claimed that it is women who were discriminated against because - get this - they receive longer probation periods.

One commission recently justified giving women shorter sentences because women are often custodial parents. But the sentencing disparities persisted in the above studies that took family situations into account. So even if custodial parenthood justifies a shorter sentence, courts are giving men longer sentences than women even when neither (or both) are custodial parents. Needless to say, when a father commits a crime, the courts have no trouble calling him an unfit parent and removing him from his kids.

The gender bias in our courts and in our gender bias task forces is not just an injustice to the victims; it is a tragic betrayal of public trust. In fact, as embarrassing as it sounds, we may need to create task forces to investigate the gender bias of the task forces that we created to investigate gender bias in the first place.

This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal (8/1/01).

Marc Angelucci is a public interest attorney in Los Angeles and is the Los Angeles Chapter president of the National Coalition of Free Men.

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