Gender inequality in the death penalty


The death penalty in today’s society is seen as a proper way of punishing individuals who commit capital crimes. This has been a controversial subject for a long time as different people feel and hold different beliefs towards the subject. Those who have lost their loved ones through murder suffer greatly and are usually of the opinion that the death penalty provides them justice as an even type of closure, the best type of revenge, and a righteous punishment. However, others believe that capital punishment is an ineffective, expensive, and a time-consuming process that is morally wrong (Williams and Holcomb 367). After reading Dead Man Walking, I believe the death penalty is a major cause of death for innocent people as it is an immoral punishment and ultimately results in the mistrust of the legal system. This being a wide topic, I would argue that there is gender inequality in the death penalty, therefore it is immoral as it does not guarantee equal justice.

The relationship between crime and gender is paradoxical, persistent, and deep. Society recognizes gender as an important factor that plays a critical role in the criminal justice system when dealing with various crimes. Certainly, “men and women are considered to differ in the crime patterns and the offence rates as well as the victimization experiences” (365). The belief that males commit disproportionate rates of crimes has a significant effect on how society and the law respond to various crimes (Prejean 37). Stauffer et al. assert that “males account for 62.9% and 80.4% for persons convicted of property crimes and violent crimes respectively” (103). Most importantly, the idea that men are primarily responsible for committing more crimes than women has had -a great effect on the justice system and it has influenced the criminal justice policies and criminological thinking. Due to the effect of gender expectations and roles, there arises gender inequality in the death penalty which thus makes it discriminatory in nature.

Significantly, gender roles affect the way society and law respond to violence and various crimes. It is, therefore, noteworthy that gender plays a critical role in influencing how the criminal justice system deals and responds to different crimes. Although it is a common argument that the law is just and without differentiation between women and men, criminology studies show that the offenders’ social characteristics likely to influence the decisions made in the criminal justice system (Prejean 37). Prejean also posits that “the prison system is seen like it is more suitable for men that women” (45). Considerably, the criminal justice system treats women with leniency than men. From Williams and Holcomb’s standpoint, “stereotypical assumptions in the criminal justice system view women offenders to be more deserving of community-based punishment and warranting special consideration” (367).  As such, the likelihood of women offenders to be arrested, jailed, or convicted is less compared to men (367). In this regard, societal views about gender affect the way the criminal justice system responds to violent crimes and death penalty. The stereotypical belief that men are more likely to commit violent crimes than women influences the conviction and sentencing of men with capital sentences more than in women. As a result, it creates a disproportionate use of capital sentencing in the criminal justice system which is highly influenced by stereotypical beliefs.

The first response to any crime is the law enforcement officers. The stereotypical attitudes of the police officers towards the offender’s gender affect the way society and the law would respond to crime committed by the culprit. I must point out that from the sentencing patterns and courts practice, women sentencing in the court is usually influenced by the double jeopardy, double deviance, and evil woman thesis (Prejean 37). Double deviance illustrates that often, women offenders are seen in the light of being doubly deviant as they have both deviated by breaking social norms and committing a crime. Thus they are seen as being unnatural and unfeminine. According to the “evil woman” thesis women offenders are seen to have compromised their gender roles and expectations and, therefore, deserve to be treated with more negativity. On the other hand, women offenders are seen to have committed crimes that impose double jeopardy in which they invite harsher treatment as their offences may increase their ability to repeat the crimes again. As aforementioned, the law treats men and women equally. The criminal law, therefore, apply equally to both men and women. However, the influence of gender and sex is as significant as the legal category in relation to the criminal act. Mostly, women are considered to be less violent than men and need protection more. These assumptions play a significant role in attracting the leniency of the criminal justice system towards women for capital punishment.

Women are usually seen in the light of a less culpable gender that is less recidivist, and should be treated more leniently. This expounds why most judges and law enforcement officers do not see women defendants as possible threats to society. Conversely, women are seen by the enforcement officers as defendants in need of protection which subsequently affects the sentencing decision (Stauffer et al. 107). As a matter of fact, most judges are reluctant to send female defendants to prison. This hypothesis is based on the fact that the rate at which women commit violent crimes is less compared to that of men. It is also important to note that most judges are likely to hold orthodox opinions about females and their behaviours (107). As such, they tend to be friendlier and less harsh with female offenders regardless of the seriousness of their crimes. On the other hand, the male defendants who are accused of committing violent and serious crimes like killing women or other murder-related crimes are likely to be convicted with a death penalty and less likely to get a lenient or reduced charge.

It is beyond doubt that the response to serious crimes is significantly influenced and affected by social characteristics of the victims and the defendant. Most importantly, the defendant’s and the victim’s gender in a violence-related case influences the decision of the court. Certainly, the law and the legal system help to keep the way of life in society organized and in control. This means that the legal system is subject to the expectations of the society as it is a product of the same society (Prejean 37). On the other hand, committing a crime that one is less expected to commit attracts undue harsher treatment. For instance, a woman killing her child is less expected and hence attracts harsher treatment from society. Although this is not based on the law, the evidence brought against the offender in the court is likely to influence the judgment such as a death penalty which is a manifestation of gender inequality in sentencing.

On the other hand, capital punishment and the existence of the death penalty are highly influenced by the political culture. The political culture of a state plays a significant role in determining why and how the state adopts capital punishment which means that the death penalty and political culture are strongly related. Phillips asserts that “the political culture affects the frequency of death penalty sentences and who it affects” (815). I personally believe that states embrace the death penalty to maintain social order rather than to deter crime. Mostly, maintaining the social order involves controlling the minority threat, state priorities, and social disruption. This explains why the death penalty usually affects the minority groups. For instance, Prejean points out that “men are able to endure harsh sentencing than women and are sentenced to capital punishment more than women” (37).

Conclusively, I would contend that the death penalty is an unjust and immoral punishment system that results in the deaths of innocent people and does not deter crime in society. Most importantly, the capital punishment system is marred by gender inequality which is one of the greatest causes of loss of trust in the legal and criminal justice system. Significantly, most judges and law enforcement officers hold orthodox views about females and their behaviors and are likely to show leniency to female defendants. Women are also considered to show less offensive behavior towards the enforcement officers hence getting reduced charges for their serious crimes. Conversely, male offenders are seen by the officers in a cynical light and, therefore, get punitive sentences and their sentences for violent crimes are less likely to be reduced. This means that the criminal justice system which uses the death penalty as a punishment for serious crimes has gender inequality.

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  1. Prejean, Helen. Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011.
  2. Phillips, Scott. “Status Disparities In The Capital Of Capital Punishment.” Law & Society Review vol. 43, no. 4, 2009, pp. 807-838.
  3. Stauffer, Army R., et al. “The Interaction Between Victim, Race, And Gender On Sentencing Outcomes In Capital Murder Trial: A Further Exploration.” Homicide Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 2006, pp. 98-177.
  4. Williams, Marian R., and Jefferson E. Holcomb. “The Interactive Effects Of Victim Race And Gender On Death Sentence Disparity Findings.” Homicide Studies, vol. 8, no.4, 2004, pp. 350-376.
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