Female Judges Deliver Harsher Sentences in Sexual Assault Cases

As the Cannes Film Festival grapples with accusations of rape and sexual assault against French producer Alain Sarde, a new study suggests that the gender of judges can impact the sentences handed down in such cases.

Researchers from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) have found that female judges tend to impose longer sentences than their male counterparts when deciding cases involving sexual offences, particularly those with female and minor victims.

The study, led by Laura Arantegui, a predoctoral researcher at the UOC, examined over 2,200 sexual offence cases tried in Spanish provincial courts between 2019 and 2020. While Spanish law strictly determines penalties based on the type of crime, the researchers discovered that human factors, such as the sex of the judges, can also influence sentencing decisions.

Gender Roles and Empathy for Victims

The influx of women into the traditionally male-dominated judiciary has prompted research into how a judge’s gender may affect their judicial decisions. The UOC researchers suggest that the different societal roles played by men and women could lead to varying perspectives on vulnerable social groups.

“When dealing with this type of sex offence, women act as representatives of their gender and undoubtedly try to defend these victims, whom they see as more helpless or in a situation of inferiority, and perhaps for this reason they’re more punitive”, explained Arantegui.

Composition of the Bench Matters

The study found that the presence of more women on a three-judge bench resulted in harsher sentences. However, when the bench consisted solely of female judges, other variables also influenced the punishment imposed. Interestingly, the researchers discovered that the sex of the presiding judge and the reporting judge played a more significant role in sentencing than the overall number of women on the bench.

As the debate surrounding the impact of gender on judicial decisions continues, Arantegui and her team plan to expand their research to single-judge cases and other types of crimes. The findings of this study underscore the complex interplay between the law and the human factors that shape its application.

Arantegui, L., Romero, P., & Tamarit, J. M. (2024). Does the sex of judges matter? Analysis of sentencing in sex crimes in Spain. Criminology & Criminal Justice0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/17488958241239785

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