June 6th, 2016
In March, a California jury found 20-year-old Stanford student Brock Turner guilty of three counts of sexual assault. He faced a maximum of 14 years in state prison, but was sentenced this past Thursday to six months in county jail and probation. The judge said he feared a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on Turner, a “star swimmer” (a fact which was brought up repeatedly by the defense). On Thursday, the woman whom Turner raped addressed him directly in a statement, which was subsequently published on Buzzfeed, along with her comment that she was “disappointed with the ‘gentle’ sentence and angry that Turner still denied sexually assaulting her.”
Her statement, which describes her experience from the night she was assaulted through the double victimization she went through during the trial, went viral. It’s full of sickening, enraging details.
For example, she found out what had happened to her by reading a newspaper article, at the bottom of which, following “the graphic details” of her own sexual assault, the author “listed [Turner’s] swimming times”; that even though there were eye-witnesses, and clear physical evidence, Turner “hired a powerful attorney, expert witnesses, private investigators who were going to try and find details” about her personal life to use against her; that she was told that “because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted.”
At the trial, she was forced to answer questions like:
“When did you drink? How much did you drink? What container did you drink out of? Who gave you the drink? How much do you usually drink?[…]Do you remember silencing [your phone]? Really, because on page 53 I’d like to point out that you said it was set to ring[…]Did you drink in college? You said you were a party animal? How many times did you black out? Did you party at frats? Are you serious with your boyfriend? Are you sexually active with him? When did you start dating? Would you ever cheat? Do you have a history of cheating?[…]Do you remember any more from that night? No? Okay, well, we’ll let Brock fill it in.”
The defense tried to paint her, as she put it, as “the face of girls gone wild, as if somehow that would make it so that I had this coming for me.” But, as she said in her message to her attacker:
“alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked…We were both drunk, the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away.”
One of the most infuriating parts of this whole case is that, in a letter to the judge, Turner’s father claimed that Turner should not be sent to jail because he could contribute more to society if he was free, specifically by educating college students about “the college campus drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that.”
In her statement, the woman addressed that point directly:
“If you want talk to people about drinking go to an AA meeting. You realize, having a drinking problem is different than drinking and then forcefully trying to have sex with someone? Show men how to respect women, not how to drink less.”
She said that she did “not want Brock to rot away in prison” but that:
“the probation officer’s recommendation of a year or less in county jail is a soft timeout, a mockery of the seriousness of his assaults, an insult to me and all women. It gives the message that a stranger can be inside you without proper consent and he will receive less than what has been defined as the minimum sentence. Probation should be denied. I also told the probation officer that what I truly wanted was for Brock to get it, to understand and admit to his wrongdoing.”
Everything about the case is horrific. And everything about Turner makes him an easily hate-able villain; his creepy smile in the yearbook photo (above) that the media has been circulating of him (rather than the typical mug-shot), the media and his defense’s emphasis on his swimming record; his race and class privilege (in a letter to the court, his dad stated how he won’t be able to make Turner his favorite “ribeye steak” if he goes to jail), his unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions, and his obnoxious and offensive displacement of blame onto his victim’s alcohol consumption and “sexual promiscuity.” His crime is disgusting.
Reading the barrage of outrage pouring out of supposedly liberal individuals on social media and publications in response to the news of his sentencing—demanding a prison term of many years or decades—one couldn’t help but feel slightly queasy.
A Change.org petition, with tens of thousands of signatures, called for the judge in the case to be recalled from his judicial position “for the lenient sentence he allowed in the Brock Turner rape case. 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.”
New York Daily News writer Shaun King wrote a piece headlined “Rapist Brock Turner and Lenient Judge Embody the Worst of America’s Justice System.” He wrote:
“Turner should be in prison for the maximum possible time for such crimes—at least a decade —but a combination of wealth, position, and good old white-skin privilege basically got this man off of serving genuine hard time.”
This outrage is based on a clear, outrageous truth: If this young man were not a white college student with a privileged background, he would certainly have received a longer sentence. If he weren’t white, there’s no way the press would describe him as “baby-faced” and focus on what a great swimmer he was. His case highlights grotesque inequalities.
But the outrage is misguided—though understandable on a visceral, emotional level. Because giving Turner a harsher sentence wouldn’t reduce the sentences of the young men (and women) of color currently serving horrific sentences for minor crimes.
The true scandal isn’t Turner’s “lenient” sentence. It’s not even his father’s (tone-deaf, entitled) letter. The scandal is the fact that so many thousands of black parents (as well as less privileged white ones) are denied the same consideration for their child—that less privileged young men (or women) convicted of crimes don’t get a “second chance,” don’t get their humanity and potential taken into consideration.
Our outrage should be directed at the lack of humanity in the sentencing of these hundreds of thousands of people—and at the misogyny that fosters sex crimes—but not at the sentencing of one young man who committed an awful crime but was fortunate enough to be shown some mercy.
It’s not going to help any of the black men, who, in the federal system, are given sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males for the same crimes, for Turner to get a harsher sentence.
“A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” said the judge, in explaining his decision. While it’s easy to mock that statement, since such courtesy would never be extended to a less privileged, non-white defendant, it doesn’t mean it’s not true. A prison sentence has a severe impact on anyone who gets one—and that should always be taken strongly into consideration.
As Shaun King wrote:
“Do you know how many young black boys and girls, sometimes as young as 13 and 14 years old, are tried as adults in court rooms all across America and given mandatory minimums of 10 years and 20 years and even life in prison? Thousands. Tens of thousands.”
He writes that his “good friend Brandon Garner was given 10 years in prison for selling marijuana. Ten years. He’s not scheduled to be released until 2023.”
That’s absolutely appalling. We should do all we can to fight against such human rights violations. But again, giving Turner a longer sentence would do nothing to help Brandon Garner.
If we progressives truly believe in an end to mass incarceration, in an end to inhumane sentencing, and even in prison abolition, we need to extend these principles even to people who commit horrifying, disgusting, violent crimes.
Angela Davis writes in Are Prisons Obsolete: “The prison is considered so ‘natural’ that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it.” When we hear about a crime like Turner’s, our natural instinct it to reach for the punishment that we’re used to.
No just world would deny the victim in this case the opportunity to get what she says she wants: “for Brock to get it, to understand and admit to his wrongdoing.” But a harsher prison sentence would in no way guarantee this outcome. That’s why many on the Left have looked toward alternative responses to crime, like what is referred to as “Transformative Justice.”
Transformative Justice has no one definition. It is “a way of practicing alternative justice which acknowledges individual experiences and identities and works to actively resist the state’s criminal injustice system.” According to Generation Five, a national anti-violence organization, Transformative Justice “seeks to provide people who experience violence with immediate safety and long-term healing and reparations while holding people who commit violence accountable within and by their communities. This accountability includes stopping immediate abuse, making a commitment to not engage in future abuse, and offering reparations for past abuse.”
Transformative justice also has a systemic focus: “Transformative Justice also seeks to transform inequity and power abuses within communities. Through building the capacity of communities to increase justice internally, Transformative Justice seeks to support collective action toward addressing larger issues of injustice and oppression.”
Transformative Justice recognizes that increased policing, prosecution and imprisonment, especially long-term imprisonment, cannot be our primary solution to violence against women, or any other crime.
There is something to be said for the idea that, perhaps if people like Turner were given harsher sentences, then people in power would wake up to the atrocities of our prison system. But don’t we want sentences to be universally lowered rather than universally raised? Don’t we want (at the very least) the incarceration rates of people of color to be lowered to meet those of whites, not vice versa?
If we have these principles, we need to stand by them when it doesn’t feel good, as well as when it does.
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