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Why feminists need to discuss gender disparity in the criminal justice system

Gender discrimination occurs in the courts, but few people talk about the unfair treatment men face in the process

Photo illustration of gender disparity in the criminal justice system.

Photo illustration of gender disparity in the criminal justice system.

Equal pay! Abortion rights! The glass ceiling! All of these ideas are commonly associated with people who champion the ideals of feminism and fight for “gender equity” and “fair treatment of the sexes.” 

I admit freely as a feminist that I discuss these topics among my friends. Many of the topics feminists talk about, such as the ones listed above, are issues in which women typically benefit.

However, very few feminists even mention gender disparities in regards to the amount of time men and women serve in the criminal justice system.

According to a study conducted by Professor Sonja Starr from the University of Michigan Law School, even with the same for criminal history, arrest offenses and other pertinent aspects, “men receive 63 percent longer sentences on average than women do.”

The gender disparity in the criminal justice system can stem from multiple places. Professor Cassia Spohn, the foundation professor and director at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU, said, “even when you have two people committing very similar or even the very same crime, judges may come to a conclusion based on stereotypes that may or may not be true: That women are simply less culpable, less dangerous, less threatening. As a result, they may impose harsher punishment on men.

“If we look at women’s criminal histories, we often find that they don’t bring the same baggage that men do,” Spohn said. The fact that women generally have a less serious criminal history may also influence the sentencing decision.

However, it is not solely the judge that affects the gender disparity; prosecutors, who decide the charges, also play a large role. 

“Prosecutors might look at two individuals who’ve committed a very similar kind of crime and charge them differently so that the woman might be charged with a less serious version of the crime," Spohn said.

In an attempt to try and close the gender disparity gap, some jurisdictions have created sentencing guidelines.

“Sentencing guidelines help because in a system without guidelines, judges can basically impose whatever sentence they want," Spohn said. "And in a system where there is that much discretion it opens the door to discrimination."

Unfortunately these efforts have not been wholly successful. "Even research in jurisdictions that have sentencing guidelines has not shown that the gender disparity is eliminated. It’s reduced, but it’s not eliminated," Spohn said.

Because this issue pertains to gender equity, feminists should talk about it more often. Yet we don’t. 

Adam Hollingsworth, a men’s rights activist, said in an interview with the Good Men Project, “A lot of times these issues will get drowned out because of highly public fighting between Men’s Rights Activists and feminists, which winds up overshadowing the legitimate concerns that many MRA’s have.”

Collectively, feminists need to bring more attention to this problem. If we are truly going to be socioeconomically and politically equal to men and establish gender equity, then it includes addressing situations that may not be “beneficial” to us.

Whether judges sentence women more harshly to match punishments meted out for men, or vice versa, there is no clear cut answer to a philosophical question Spohn said. “Judges can come at that from different perspectives and see crime through different lenses.”

To ignore this glaring subject would be doing a disservice to the idea of actual gender equality. This is not to say that women do not face discrimination. Nevertheless, giving women a more lenient sentence for the same crime is discriminating against men and must be addressed to achieve “equality.”

Reach the columnist at or follow @kmo75947 on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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