Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, will be let off early after serving only half of his six month sentence. This case highlights the incredibly problematic way the criminal justice system deals with those who commit and are convicted of sexual assault. Only focusing on retribution (defined as “length of time in prison”) will prove ultimately dissatisfying for all affected by these crimes. Instead, the courts should prioritize achieving justice for sexual assault victims, in addition to thorough rehabilitation the perpetrator.
This case initially gained attention from a letter the survivor published on Buzzfeed News. Turner’s comparatively light sentence set off a firestorm, with activists and everyday people all over the United States questioning the ability of Turner’s judge, Judge Aaron Persky, to levy an appropriate sentence for Turner’s heinous crime. An activist campaign to recall Judge Persky has raised $100,000.
Much of the initial criticism highlighted Turner’s privilege as a white male attending an elite school, noting that folks who identify as black or as minorities and had committed the same crime would surely have received a harsher sentence.
Critics also called for more retribution in Turner’s case. He could have received the maximum 14-year sentence for his violent crime, yet the judge let him off with six months in a California jail and two years of probation. Turner will also have to register as a sex offender, submit to random drug tests, and complete a sex offender management program.
In response to Turner’s case, lawmakers have proposed AB-2888, which calls for mandatory prison time for the sexual assault of unconscious victims. However, opponents of the bill emphasize that mandatory minimum sentencing laws might primarily affect minority groups and increase mass incarceration. This is a fair concern, certainly, as these are the exact outcomes of minimum sentencing in drug offenses.
This is the difficulty of attempting to achieve justice in an unjust system. While it is satisfying to see lawmakers attempting to correct for Turner’s ridiculously light sentence, their efforts may have long term effects that are ultimately damaging to society.
It is hard to quantify in years or time what an appropriate sentence is or should be for sexual assault, or any violent crime, as the damage from these crimes can certainly last a lifetime for the victim. Is 10 years in prison appropriate? Twenty years? Twenty five? The problem with the criminal justice system when it comes to sexual offenders, particularly, has been leniency, as very few sexual offenders go to jail or prison for their crime. Yet the focus on sweeping standards of retribution for any kind of crime will ultimately be unsatisfactory, as they focus all energy on punishing the perpetrator instead of getting justice for the victim.
When individuals commit sexual assault, our justice system should be survivor focused, primarily considering their needs in the process. More effective modes of punishment should necessarily include an apology and any other needed support for the victim, as well as extensive rehabilitation for the perpetrator. Instead of focusing on how long one will serve time for sex offenses, our system should zero-in on how to best rehabilitate those who commit sexual assault and prepare them to rejoin society as a contributing citizen.
The Turner case is disheartening, primarily because we are used to the justice system failing women and survivors of sexual assault. Yet a system that focused on survivors and rehabilitation would ensure that both survivors and perpetrators would receive the help they need in the wake of these crimes.