In domestic violence cases, are female defendants treated more leniently than male defendants?

Despite popular belief, there’s no evidence to back up a claim that female offenders systematically receive more lenient treatment.

A 2010 study by the Center for Disease Control estimates that one in four women and one in seven men are victims of severe domestic violence. The majority of defendants in domestic violence cases are men accused of abusing their women partners, but women can also engage in domestic violence against their (male and female) partners. But, stereotypes about gender roles and homophobia can get in the way of appropriate investigation and prosecution, especially when the crime differs from fictional media depictions of domestic violence. For more information on domestic violence laws, see Domestic Violence & Abuse.

Domestic Violence Laws

In exploring whether women are treated more leniently, let's first consider the law. Historically, domestic violence – even severe domestic violence – was not prosecuted at all. During the women's rights movement, advocates fought to change state laws and many states now have mandatory arrest laws and other policies that encourage police and prosecutors to fight domestic violence. These laws, at least on their faces, are gender-neutral. Sometimes, rightly or wrongly, police officers responding to a domestic violence report will arrest both people (dual arrests) and sometimes they make mistakes. As a result of false or exaggerated claims by the abuser, the victim will be arrested instead of the abuser.

Additionally, many states have laws or policies that allow judges and prosecutors to treat more leniently criminal defendants who have suffered domestic abuse. One example of this are changes in rules of evidence that allow people to present evidence of long-term battering in cases where victims have killed their abusers. However, these rules too are always gender-neutral, at least in theory. State policies are about protecting the victim, whether the victim is a man or woman, and stopping the abuse, no matter what the sex of the defendant.

Attitudes About Domestic Violence

Still, do gender-neutral laws mean that men and women defendants are always treated identically? Of course not. Police officers, prosecutors, and judges all have discretion in handling domestic violence investigations and prosecutions. Their own biases against male victims or their preferences for female defendants may result in unfair treatment. However, no scientific studies show widespread lenience for female defendants. But that does not mean that there are not cases in which female defendants have been treated with lenience. According to many domestic advocates, domestic violence is about control and coercion. So, efforts to paint domestic violence strictly as male-on-female violence (rather than as a crime by a controlling abuser against the victim) are misguided and may leave many victims without protection.

Too Lenient or Too Harsh?

Rather than women being treated too leniently, many domestic violence advocates argue that women defendants are treated too harshly. These advocates argue that many women (at least in heterosexual relationships) who are arrested for domestic violence were actually acting in self-defense or being made to look like an abuser by a partner who lied or manipulated the criminal justice system. So, just as there are cases in which women defendants may treated with lenience, there are certainly cases in which women victims are treated harshly.

Getting Help

If you are being abused by your partner, you can contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are facing domestic violence charges, you should talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney. If you are the victim of domestic violence, you may also need legal assistance. An attorney can explain the legal process to you and what to expect in court. No matter what your situation, having an attorney on your side is the best way to ensure that your rights are protected.

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