Liberals are worried that the recall of Aaron Persky, the California judge who gave sexual assaulter Brock Turner a six-month prison sentence when prosecutors asked for six years, will lead other judges to hand down harsher sentences — not to the Brock Turners of the world but to black people and poor people. I’m worried too, but for another reason.
What Turner did — digitally penetrate an unconscious woman behind a dumpster — was despicable. But does it make sense that many who otherwise harbor concerns about America’s prison complex still want to see him behind bars for years?
There’s a disconnect between opposing our society’s reliance on prison to solve all ills and assuming that prison is the best response to sexual assault, whether the assailant is a black man in a poor neighborhood or a white kid on a prestigious swim scholarship. Reconciling those positions requires probing the reasons Persky’s critics were so set on locking Turner up for more than a few months.
The first reason is race. It’s easy to compare the blond-haired, blue-eyed Stanford student’s measly months in confinement for rape with, say, the lifetime an African American man in Shreveport, La., was sentenced to serve for selling $20 of weed to an undercover cop.
But for someone dedicated to reforming a criminal-justice system run amok, this argument falls flat. The answer to the oversentencing of black and brown people isn’t so much to amp up punishments for offenders who look like Turner as it is to decrease punishments for offenders who don’t. The privileged should be held accountable for their actions. Yet assuming that accountability means more time in prison only legitimizes the same system that runs on discrimination against the marginalized.
Then there’s the argument that sexual violence is somehow different from other forms of crime. Maybe, this logic goes, accountability for rape doesn’t look the same as accountability for other crimes, no matter the offender’s record and no matter the circumstances. Maybe, because sexual assault is too often treated with little seriousness, slamming people like Turner with protracted sentences would send a message. Maybe it would tell would-be criminals they can’t walk merrily along while the women they traumatized carry what happened with them for the rest of their lives.
Maybe, but that thinking has issues, too. It ignores the complications that trusting the prison system to solve sexual violence has enabled so far. In cases of domestic violence, for example, survivors have landed in jail, too, when they’ve tried to defend themselves — especially when they belong those same marginalized groups that progressives want to protect. Kicking the problem to prison also perpetuates violence behind bars.
To me, it seems impossible to separate the question of sexual assault from the abuses that gall those who campaign against mass incarceration. So it’s worth asking, as few have done during the Turner story, whether there’s another way.
Funneling more money into penitentiaries takes funds away from prevention efforts and other social safety programs that would help survivors escape their abusers. Because research shows severity of punishment isn’t nearly as effective a deterrent to crime than the certainty of being caught, even resources that stay in the justice system would be better spent on training specialized sex-crime forces to recognize rape cases for what they are and catch the perpetrators.
For those who believe in restorative rather than retributive justice, there are manifold ends: to stop others from getting hurt, to help those who’ve been hurt, to rehabilitate, if possible, those who do the hurting. The way to achieve these ends is sure to vary from case to case, just as it does in other areas of criminality, but “lock him up for longer” is a crude all-purpose response to a sensitive quandary. Even when the villain evokes no sympathy whatsoever.