Zero Tolerance Policies and the Abuse Excuse

Today, I published a letter to the editor in The Washington Post, contrasting the treatment of two women recently sent to jail. (Instapundit linked to my letter). The first woman is a Virginia mother sentenced to jail for 27 months in jail for serving alcohol at her son’s 16th birthday party.The second is a Tennessee pastor’s wife who will serve just a few months for killing her husband by shooting him as he lay in bed.

I questioned the bizarre outlook of a criminal justice system that treats killing your husband as a less serious offense than serving alcohol to teenagers. The Virginia mom’s plight is, fortunately, not the norm.

By contrast, the Tennessee’s wife’s ridiculously short sentence for taking human life is not that rare. Courts are often indulgent towards wives who kill their husbands: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ study of large urban counties, wives who commit unprovoked killings of their husbands get an average sentence of only 7 years, compared to the more reasonable 17 years that husbands receive for killing their wives.

Courts are biased in favor of female violent criminals, viewing violence from such defendants as an uncharacteristic act, or unnatural fluke, even if they have a history of violence. Courts are quick to suspect mental illness on the part of the perpetrator or provocation by the victim, even when the violence was unprovoked. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has found pervasive gender bias in sentencing.

By contrast, there is less gender bias in sentencing for non-violent crimes, where women and men receive fairly similar sentences. As a result, women’s prisons are disproportionately filled with non-violent offenders.

We need to rethink the “zero tolerance” policies that resulted in the Virginia mother’s draconian sentence — and stop making excuses for wives who kill their husbands, like the Tennessee pastor’s wife.