When Stanford University student Brock Turner was sentenced to a mere six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a frat party, it inspired outrage. The victim wrote a raw and difficult-to-read but important letter about the effects of his attack on her, and people have circulated petitions asking for Judge Aaron Persky to be removed for his lenient sentence.
As a result of the sentence California has passed a law to require mandatory prison time for sexual offenses against unconscious people. Last week a new outrage with this case emerged when Turner was released after serving just three months.
On Tuesday, Turner registered as a sex offender in Ohio. He was convicted of three felonies after attacking an unconscious woman, and the most lasting part of his sentence is being included for life on the national sex offender registry. He will also serve probation for three years.
The law may have gone easy on Turner, but public opinion—and his neighbors—are not as sympathetic. His home is the site of protests, and because of the wide attention his sentence and lack of remorse garnered, he’s unlikely to be able to slink into obscurity soon.
Are Mandatory Minimums the Answer?
Turner’s sentencing was laughable, but the attention and changes it inspired aren’t. Assembly Bill 2888 passed in California by a landslide, 77-1, and will ensure that rapists in California will never again be sentenced to probation.
The one vote against the law was Cristina Garcia, a female Democrat, who listed her objections as: “We should not perpetuate practices that put an undue burden on minorities and economically disadvantaged communities like minimum mandatory sentences. The limiting of judicial discretion falls primarily on minorities and the economically disadvantaged which are why the bill is opposed by the ACLU and why I voted no on this legislation.” Persky is no longer hearing criminal cases, which is a win for victims of violent crime since it appears he’s been lenient on other abusers of women.
Yet mandated minimum sentences have many unintended consequences that can make the law more unfair, not less. When Persky sentenced Turner so lightly, by causing such a strong public backlash he endangered the ability of conscientious judges to consider plea bargains and reduced sentences when they make sense. Ultimately, Californians will be the losers here, not Turner. With prisons already critically overcrowded, mandatory minimums won’t help rehabilitate low-level offenders.
It’s also vital to note that mandatory minimums shift potential sentencing decisions from judges to prosecutors. Professor Michael Tonry of the University of Minnesota Law has concluded, “‘the weight of the evidence clearly shows that enactment of mandatory penalties has either no demonstrable marginal deterrent effects or short-term effects that rapidly waste away.’ Nor is it clear that mandatory minimum sentences reduce crime through incapacitation…In drug cases, mandatory minimum sentences are also often insensitive to factors that could make incapacitation more effective, such as prior criminal history.”
Public Backlash Does What a Negligent Judge Won’t
No amount of attention after the fact can heal the wounds of the victim, and no amount of vigilantism metes out justice. However, this case focused us largely on the right things. Instead of trying to blame the victim, the largest push has been against the attacker. It’s been on his sentence, on the terrible judgement of the judge, and more positively on the men who stopped the attack. There’s hope for future victims here.
I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life being known as the 20 minutes of action man. Turner will never be able to purge this from the Internet, and he’s been tried in the court of public opinion. He’s forever a meme. When the system fails us, people can support victims, and changes can be made.
Yet we also need to remember that becoming violent criminals ourselves by turning to vigilante justice is not the answer, even in total lapses of justice. This is why we need the courts to pass fair and just punishments for crimes. Functional criminal justice systems that we can trust protect victims and remove the desire for vigilante justice. That would be a truly positive outcome of this horrible case.