A case for leniency

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There is the perception that women who commit crimes receive more leniency than men when they are brought before the court system. This is a very complex issue and one that cannot be done justice in this short space, but it is a topic that has sparked some interest in light of what has been happening in Antigua & Barbuda.

Gradually the number of incarcerated females at Her Majesty’s Prison has been climbing, but the felonies, for the most part, involve drugs rather than violent crimes.

An Internet search confirmed that the trend is that women are now more likely than men to serve time for drug offences and are subject to increasingly punitive sentencing practices, even though they do not play a central role in the drug trade.

Poor, destitute, single women are targeted as drug mules. “It’s easy; you have nothing to worry about, it’s just this one time,” they would’ve been told and in their naivety and desperate need to improve their extreme economic conditions, get sucked into a web of lies and deceit of the sociopathic drug dealers.

Many times the end result is being caught and imprisoned in a foreign land.

Women are more likely to commit what is referred to as economic crime (fraud) where they would use people’s credit cards illegally, forge cheques, or embezzle money from their employers.

In Antigua & Barbuda, although this offence can attract jail time, more often than not they are fined and given time to repay the illegally acquired gains.

Women are less likely than men to be incarcerated for violent offences and when this happens, they are usually defending themselves or their children against abuse.

With respect to punishment for drug offences, women are treated the same as men in the courts. The practice of reducing a sentence by two-thirds if the perpetrators plead guilty and do not waste the court’s time is the same in Antigua & Barbuda for both women and men.

However, for other crimes, there are times when they are treated equally and other times when they are not.

In Antigua, although women have been convicted of murder, there is no record that any of them has ever received the death penalty, while this cannot be said for men who have met their date with the hangman for the same crime.

On the other side of the issue, some women who kill violent partners often end up with harsher sentences than men who have killed their partners without such abuse.

Everyone would agree that the justice system should be blind. Everyone: black, white and in between; Syrian, Lebanese, Chinese; rich and poor; Christian and atheist, men and women should be treated equally before the law.

This is the ideal that the justice system – as symbolised by a blindfolded woman – claims to uphold; however, we all know it is totally different in reality.

In Antigua & Barbuda, we do not have to search far for examples to support this assertion.

So if everyone is not treated equally before the law, why should not that special treatment be accorded women, who, for the most part, form the larger percentage of marginalised people anywhere in the world?

On one hand, women continue to be the primary nurturers of our young and caregivers for our sick and elderly. Although there are more men taking on this nurturing role, the percentage increase is miniscule and so it might be more advantageous for society on a whole to give women reduced custodial sentences, or community service, since any long-term absence in the home could negatively impact the children, senior citizens in their care and by extension society at large.

But those against this approach would counter that incarceration could be equated with migration, as the trend now is for the women to migrate first and their absence is the same whether in prison or in another country.

The same way that other family members chip in and fulfill that nurturing role, is the same way they could in the case of incarceration.

However, an important factor not taken into the equation here is that while the mother who is an immigrant can send money or barrels to support her offspring, the situation is starkly different for those in jail. Added to that is the stigma attached to being a jailbird as opposed to being an immigrant.

While we accede that the court system should strive for the ideal, and should deal with individual cases based on the nature of the crime, reality in this case informs our judgement. When we look at real life situations, we nevertheless believe there are valid reasons to suggest less harsh treatment in the courts for women.

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