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The ‘intimacy discount:’ Sentences lighter for men who kill female partners

A Toronto inmate bides his time on Feb. 24, 2011.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Men who kill their female partners are more likely to be criminally convicted than men accused of killing strangers – but they also tend to get lighter sentences, a Canadian study concludes.

The research, being published in the journal "Current Sociology," finds that men who kill their wives, girlfriends or other female family members are handed shorter prison terms than men who kill strangers.

In fact, according to the findings, men who kill women they know are treated more leniently at most stages of the criminal-justice process, such as facing fewer charges of first-degree murder.

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Study author Myrna Dawson, an associate sociology professor at the University of Guelph, calls it the "intimacy discount."

"This may mean that women killed by male partners are still seen as property and, as such, these femicides are not treated as seriously as other femicides," the study states.

Another factor at play could be that femicide of a partner or family member is typically seen as a spontaneous "crime of passion" or the result of victim provocation.

"Despite the dominance of these beliefs, there has been little examination of the validity of resulting stereotypes," Dawson told The Canadian Press. "Some exploratory research has shown that premeditation or intent is actually more likely in cases involving men who kill female partners."

Perhaps counterintuitively, given the lighter sentences, the study found that men who kill intimate partners are convicted at rates three times higher than men who kill female strangers.

Crimes involving relatives tend to be easier both to solve and prosecute, research suggests. The shorter sentences could therefore be due to charges that are more often reduced in exchange for guilty pleas.

"Understanding whether the plea process or common stereotypes associated with intimacy and violence explain this relationship (between convictions and sentencing) is a crucial next step and one that I am currently examining," Dawson said.

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"Court actors – judges, Crown attorneys, defence lawyers – are professionals but they are also members of the public (so) how they see these crimes is key."

For her journal article "Punishing femicide: criminal justice responses to the killing of women over four decades," Dawson analyzed Ontario homicide cases between 1974 and 2013, a period in which men killed at least 1,381 women – roughly one femicide every 10 days. She reviewed coroner's records, police reports and court files to look at criminal charges, guilty pleas and prison sentences.

A key finding was the "female victim effect," a corroboration of previous American research: Men who kill women are generally treated more harshly than when they kill other men, with those who kill female strangers facing the most severe punishment, particularly at sentencing.

Researchers disagree on why this happens. One idea is that it may be because femicide often occurs in conjunction with a sexual assault, seen as a significant aggravating factor. Another is that the justice system views women as more vulnerable and in greater need of protection.

Dawson, who is Canada research chair in public policy in criminal justice, notes that women remain at far higher risk of being killed by someone they know than by a stranger – one in 10 femicides are perpetrated by strangers. Statistics also show Canadian men kill other men at about twice the rate they kill woman.

Overall, Canada's homicide rate has been declining steadily for decades, in large part due to a sharp fall in "domestic" killings, statistics indicate.

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"There have been changes over time in how the courts respond to femicide, supporting a tentative conclusion that legislative and policy changes may be contributing to improved social and legal responses to these crimes in Canada," the study states.

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