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The Prison Complex

Monday, Jun 20, 2016, 11:40 am

What Are People Saying About the Stanford Case?

By George Lavender

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“Even if the sentence is light, hopefully this will wake people up,” she said. “I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire. If anything, this is a reason for all of us to speak even louder.” Stanford sexual assault survivor (via Buzzfeed)

Earlier this month, Brock Turner, a former Stanford University Student was sentenced to six months in jail for sexual assault. On “good behavior” he will serve three. There has been a long-running campaign against campus sexual assault for many years, but this case gained national attention after a statement by the survivor of the assault went viral.

The statement, which she read in court, is directed for the most part at Turner himself. She describes the assault and the effects it has had on her. She describes being revictimized by Turner’s testimony, and the accusatory lines of questioning she faced. She also thanks those who had supported her, including the two other students who witnessed the assault and intervened.

Her letter received widespread attention. Among those prompted to respond publicly was Vice President Joe Biden who described himself as “filled with furious anger” and wrote “An Open Letter to a Courageous Young Woman.” 

The court case prompted intense public discussion and many, many, articles written about the legal and criminal justice issues it raises. Here I’ve tried to compile just some of those responses

Lenient Sentence?

“A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” Judge Aaron Persky said while sentencing Turner to six months in jail “I think he will not be a danger to others.” Turner was sentenced to three years probation for three felony counts: intent to commit rape, sexual penetration with a foreign object of an intoxicated person and sexual penetration with a foreign object of an unconscious person. He will also have to register as a sexual offender. Many deemed that sentence insufficient.

Roxane Gay writing about “White Crime” on Lenny Letter argued that Turner was an example of how white defendants receive lesser sentences than defendants of color.

“This is how whiteness works. Turner is seen as human, as a victim in the crime he committed. He is a "good young man." He is allowed to have both a past and a future and this past and future are worthy of consideration. His crime is a mistake, not a scarlet letter, not a reflection of his character.” Continue reading… 

(That was also one aspect of the discussion on this To The Point episode which is well worth listening to)

Among those who publicly criticized the length of the sentence was Senator Claire McCaskill, a former prosecutor herself who told The Hill “Typically, that would be considered an inappropriate sentence.” Her Democratic colleague Senator Kirsten Gillibrand agreed, saying a “short sentence sends the wrong message.” Meanwhile, a juror from the trial reportedly described themselves as “shocked and appalled” by the sentence:

"After the guilty verdict I expected that this case would serve as a very strong deterrent to on-campus assaults, but with the ridiculously lenient sentence that Brock Turner received, I am afraid that it makes a mockery of the whole trial and the ability of the justice system to protect victims of assault and rape," the juror wrote to Persky. "Clearly there are few to no consequences for a rapist even if they are caught in the act of assaulting a defenseless, unconscious person." Continue reading.. 

Role of Probation

Probation is the “unsung villain” in the Turner case writes Chandra Bozelko in The Guardian. The Associated Press found Judge Persky has consistently followed probation recommendations whenever they are available.

After a jury convicted a California man of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in a fatal drunken driving crash, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to six months in jail and ordered him to undergo random alcohol testing.

The judge sentenced Frank Guerrero to three years in prison for robbing another man. In both cases, Persky followed the sentencing recommendation of the Santa Clara County Probation Department.

An Associated Press review of his rulings shows that Persky has adhered to the same practice in every trial where the probation office made a recommendation since he began presiding over a Palo Alto criminal court in 2015. Continue reading...

From Chandra Bozelko’s article:

The public remains unaware of the considerable power wielded by probation officers in the criminal justice system. Seventy years ago, federal probation officers were assigned not only to supervise people, but also to conduct what was supposed to be an objective, third-party assessment of a defendant’s social, occupational, psychological, criminal and medical history to assure that any sentence imposed was tailored to the defendant, not necessarily the crime. While pre-sentence investigation reports aren’t mandated in every state, each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and federal district courts allow probation officers to investigate and write the reports for sentencing defendants. Continue reading...

Removing the Judge?

Much of the backlash has focused on Judge Aaron Persky. Since the Turner case, several jurors have reportedly refused to serve in cases where Judge Persky is presiding, and prosecutors successfully removed him from a subsequent sexual assault case. (Although as Vox notes: “The DA’s decision to remove Persky from this case wasn’t just because he had given a lenient sentence to another man who assaulted an unconscious woman. It was that, plus another decision that made no sense to them — dismissing misdemeanor charges against a woman accused of stealing mail.”)

Persky was just reelected unopposed but now faces an unusual campaign to unseat him. California is one of only eight states that allow judges to be recalled. As Fusion reports, Michele Dauber, a law professor at Stanford, is leading a campaign to do just that:

“I think we are at a pivotal moment in the treatment of campus rape by the justice system, or at least in the way the public views that,” Dauber told me in a phone conversation. “And I think the outrage over the unreasonably lenient sentence in this case really shows that people really expect assaults—whether on campus or somewhere else—to be treated like the violent crimes that they are.” Continue reading...

There are several other petitions calling for his removal, one Change.org petition with more than a million signatures reads:

Judge Persky failed to see that the fact that Brock Turner is a white male star athlete at a prestigious university does not entitle him to leniency. He also failed to send the message that sexual assault is against the law regardless of social class, race, gender or other factors. Please help rectify this travesty to justice. Continue reading…

Opposition to Recall

However, others, like Danny Cevallos at CNN expressed concern that recalling a judge for an unpopular decision would set a dangerous precedent: “If judges can be brought down for correctly applying the law,” he wrote “then ultimately, who ends up doing the judging?” 

And Judge Persky has won support from public defenders, according to the Marshall Project’s Maurice Chammah:

…the judge is finding support from a number of public defenders, who argue that punishing him will ultimately hurt their own clients — most of them, unlike Turner, poor people of color. A group of more than 70 defense attorneys, including many who have practiced before Persky, have put out their own petition, arguing that if Persky is forced out for what they consider a “reasonable, fair sentence,” it will scare other judges into giving more severe sentences, a dynamic they say contributes to high rates of incarceration. Continue reading.. 

Mass Incarceration

Writing for the Justice Fund at the Open Society Foundation Sarah Baker addresses the issue facing campaigns against mass incarceration:

We cannot in good conscience call for the end of mass incarceration while simultaneously advocating for a harsher sentence for Brock Turner, especially when we know that the majority of people in American prisons are serving time for violent offenses and that the excessively long sentences they receive are counterproductive and inhumane. Perhaps the problem on which we should collectively focus is not the judge’s sentence but rather that his “leniency” is such an exception to the rule. Continue reading... 

Elsewhere, Christina Cauterucci at Slate delves into an aspect of Brock Turner’s sentence not widely discussed: lifetime registration as a sex offender

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.

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