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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: Criminal justice is still more lenient with women

To be held less responsible for one's action

To be held less responsible for one's action is infantilizing. Paternalism is the opposite of equality. Credit: iStock

Two sensational murder cases involving young female defendants have been grabbing headlines. Jurors are deliberating in the case of Jodi Arias, a 32-year-old Arizona woman who claims self-defense in the killing of her on-and-off lover Travis Alexander. Meanwhile, Amanda Knox, the 25-year-old American facing retrial in Italy in the 2009 slaying of her British roommate Meredith Kercher, has published a memoir and told her story on television.

Both stories feature salacious details of the women's sex lives, leading to charges of sexist double standards. But the inconvenient truth is that when it comes to criminal justice, the double standards often favor women.

According to New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, Knox and Arias have been treated as "minxes" with "scarlet letters emblazoned on their chests." In fact, Knox, whose initial conviction was overturned on appeal, was often depicted not only by the tabloid media but by the Italian prosecutors as a sex-crazed she-devil -- though suggestions that she was targeted simply for her sexually liberated ways are vastly exaggerated. She first drew police scrutiny because of her flippant demeanor after her roommate was found dead; detained for questioning, she falsely named her ex-employer as the killer and admitted (falsely and under pressure, she later said) to being on the scene.

But Knox, whose guilt now seems very much in doubt, has also received a great deal of support -- and a $4-million contract for her book. If her vilification had sexist overtones, the sympathy, too, stems partly from gender-based interest in the young and attractive "damsel in distress."

As for Arias, who shot and repeatedly stabbed Alexander after driving to his house, then tried to blame intruders before confessing and switching to an uncorroborated "abuse excuse," her gender is the likely reason she is getting any benefit of the doubt at all. Reverse the sexes, and there would be an outcry about a stalker and murderer blaming the victim.

Are women, even in modern societies that ostensibly embrace egalitarian values, often judged for their sexual behavior more harshly than men? Without a doubt. But when it comes to criminal behavior, women often benefit from a society-wide presumption of greater innocence.

Numerous studies have shown that, when the offense is the same -- and across all kinds of crimes -- female defendants are more likely to have charges dismissed and to receive lighter punishment if convicted. Violent women are often seen as distraught, unstable or abused, rather than aggressive and malevolent. In 2007, former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested for viciously assaulting a romantic rival and charged with attempted kidnapping with intent to harm or terrorize. She was allowed to plead guilty to minor charges, blaming her actions on depression. At the sentencing, her victim, Colleen Shipman, asserted that Nowak had "turned on her charm and spun a pitiful story." Nowak's sentence? Probation and anger management.

Meanwhile, men often battle a presumption of guilt. When missing Pennsylvania woman Brenda Heist turned up alive last week after disappearing in 2002, news reports mentioned that her husband, Lee Heist, was suspected of murdering her -- and ostracized by many neighbors even after clearing his name. He was luckier than Texan Michael Morton, who spent 20 years in prison for the murder of his wife, Christine, and was released in 2011 when DNA evidence pointed to another suspect.

While lenient attitudes may benefit individual female defendants, they are ultimately not only discriminatory (and unfair to victims of female offenders), but bad for women. To be held less responsible for one's action is infantilizing. Paternalism is the opposite of equality.