Women twice as likely to face harsh sentences when drinking

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Women twice as likely to face harsh sentences when drinking

Old Bailey: the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales

Women are twice as likely as men to receive harsher sentences for assault offences when alcohol is a contributory factor, according to new research.

Dr Carly Lightowlers from Liverpool University’s Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology, found that while being ‘under the influence’ increased, or aggravated, sentencing outcomes across the genders, the rise in sentence severity for women was significantly higher than men even when any other mitigating or aggravating factors were taken into account.

The study considered data collected as part of the Crown Court Sentencing Survey which covered 30,861 cases heard between 2012 and 2014 following revised sentencing guidelines for assault in 2011.


You can read the full report  – Drunk and Doubly Deviant? The Role of Gender and Intoxication in Sentencing Assault Offences, published by the British Journal of Criminology – here.


‘While the chances of a female offender going to prison, or attracting a more severe sentence, was still lower than for her male counterpart, the increase in probability where intoxication featured in an offence for females was more than twice that applied to male defendants, commented Dr Lightowlers.

She continued: ‘These findings likely reflect widely held norms and beliefs about both gender and intoxication, which shape views about how ‘deserving’ an individual is of punishment, and thus raise concerns about how intoxication and gender equality shape sentencing practice. At the very least, they suggest intoxication remains a contested sentencing factor, as its influence does not uniformly aggravate male and female offending.’

Citing the example of an offence of actual bodily harm, the study found the probability of a custodial sentence was lower for women than for men – both when sober and intoxicated; however, when intoxication was cited as an aggravating factor, the aggravation – the increase in probability of a custodial sentence — applied by the judge was 13.4%, over twice that applied to male defendants at 5.7%.

Dr Lightowlers argues that the findings could be a result of the perception that alcohol consumption and violence went against ‘traditional notions of womanhood’ and that these were reinforced when sentences are handed down.

Referring to the 2007 Corston report which recognised that responses to female offending ought to be ‘gender-specific, respond sensitively to the needs of women, and divert them away from custody’. She argues that was contradicted by gender-neutral sentencing guidelines which focussed more on equality of outcome ‘rather than ensuring just and fair punishment for women in policy and practice’. Dr Lightowlers is calling on the Sentencing Council to consider monitoring how intoxication is used as an aggravating factor and develop guidance on how it ought to be applied for both male and female defendants.