The Home Office Research Study '170', titled 'Understanding the sentencing of Women' by Hedderman and Dowds (in Hedderman and Gelsthorpe, 1997), contains two projects which attempt to address the lack of substantial research into the way women are sentenced. The predominant aim of the study- was to establish how magistrates set about taking account of the substantive differences in men's and women's lives and their perceptions of 'justice'. Part I examined statistical information on more than 13,000 male and female adult offenders drawn from the Offenders Index in 1991.
Part II examined the factors sentencers identified as influences on their decision making. Task 1 of the report will discuss an overview of the main findings. Task 2 contains a discussion exploring criminological ideas, aimed at understanding the disparity between male and female 'sentencing'. The study began by examining the issue of possible 'leniency' and sentencing differences through the use of comparative sentences for specific offences. There has been much contention surrounding the treatment of women by the criminal justice system.
McLaughlin et al (2002, pp 133:2) are of the opinion that women are thought to be less likely than men to be arrested, prosecuted, convicted or imprisoned. Contrary to this, the number of women in prison has been rising steadily since 1993, where it stood at 1,580. Over the last decade, it has dramatically increased by 146%, to 4,463 (Home Office, 2001). In March 2004 there were 4589 women in prison representing about 6% of the prison population in England and Wales (HM Prisons Service, 2005). Although the majority, are for non-violent offences.
From a sample consisting of 2,696 men and 1,067 women – the study revealed that the sentencing pattern for men and women shoplifters was generally similar to that revealed in Criminal Statistics . Women were generally more likely than men to be discharged or given a probation order, less likely to be fined and given a custodial sentence, even when previous convictions are considered (Hedderman et al, 1997, pp 11:2). Similar evidence was concluded after analysis of data concerning 'first time shoplifters', which found that men in general were more likely than women to receive a custodial sentence, as were male recidivists.
For a first offence- 30% of males were discharged, compared with 43% of females. In relation to shoplifters with previous convictions, the study found that female recidivists were less likely than male recidivists, to be sentenced to imprisonment (Hedderman et al, 1997, pp12:3). These findings could be indicative of some level of 'leniency' towards women, in relation to first time offences. Only 450 offenders were female, in comparison to 6, 097 male offenders. Moore (1996, pp 165:3) expressed that apart from different levels of crime, there are significant differences in types of offences.
For example, the male: female ratio in relation to 'violence against the person' is 10:1. 56% of females studied were appearing for the first time. Moore (1996, pp 165:4) suggested that women are both less serious and less frequent offenders than men, which creates a 'differential crime pattern'. Again, data revealed women were less likely than comparable males to be given a prison sentence, community service, fine and were more likely to receive probation or discharge (Hedderman et al, 1997, pp 15:2).
The study revealed that for first-time violent offenders, there were no clear gender differences in the likelihood of receiving a custodial sentence (3% of men and 3%). This result conflicts with that of first-time shoplifters, where there were clear gender differences. Although, when the element of recidivism is included, the study found women were significantly less likely to receive a custodial sentence and they were more likely to receive a community penalty (Hedderman et al, 1997, pp 18:1). Similar disparities in the disposal of penalties were evident on analysis of drug offences. 3,338 men and 332 women were sampled.
Analysis revealed that women were more likely to be first-time offenders, 53% opposed to 25% of male offenders and were less likely to receive custodial sentences. Although, female recidivists were as likely as men to receive a custodial sentence (Hedderman et al, 1997, pp 20:1). Analysis concluded that women are always more likely to get a discharge and men more likely to be fined, which Hedderman et al (1997, pp 20:3) suggests is consistent with the theory that sentencers are reluctant to fine women and this reluctance may result in women being given more severe non-custodial penalties (Hedderman et al, 1997, pp 21:3).