A (partially removed) poster denouncing Brock Turner. Photo by Chrisjtse (Creative Commons).
On Friday, Brock Turner will walk out the doors of the Santa Clara County jail after serving only three months of his six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on the Stanford campus in January 2015. Turner’s relatively lenient jail sentence sparked poignant protest from the victim of the assault, and the fact that he’s getting out three months early feels to many like salt in the wound. Victims advocates are planning to protest his release outside the San Jose Hall of Justice on Friday.
Lawmakers have also moved to respond to the anger this case brings up. In direct response to Turner’s sentencing, on Monday California’s State Assembly passed a bill with a unanimous 66-0 vote requiring mandatory prison time for anyone who sexually assaults an unconscious person.
The bill, AB 2888, closes what lawmakers call a loophole in sexual assault sentencing that allowed people who are guilty of raping an unconscious victim to be sentenced to probation. As Buzzfeed reports, “Previously, prison time was only required in cases of sexual assault where force was used — leaving out cases where a victim could not fight back because they were unconscious or otherwise incapable of giving consent.”
Assemblyman Evan Low, who co-introduced the bill, said in a statement, “Rape is rape, and rapists like Brock Turner shouldn’t be let off with a slap on the wrist. While we can’t go back and change what happened, we can make sure it never happens again.” The measure now awaits approval from Governor Jerry Brown.
While this may seem like good news for taking future sexual assault cases more seriously, opponents of mandatory minimum sentencing laws say this bill isn’t the answer.
Know Your IX co-founder Alexandra Brodsky and her Yale Law School classmate Claire Simonich wrote in a New York Times opinion piece earlier this month that mandatory minimum sentencing laws disproportionately affect minority communities. While Brock Turner is white and has the privilege of a Stanford student—the judge who sentenced him is also a Stanford grad—passing a mandatory minimum sentencing law inspired by his case could wind up mostly impacting people of color. As Brodsky and Simonich write:
“Minorities and people with lower incomes are more likely to be arrested, and then more likely to be charged with crimes that carry higher mandatory minimums than others who commit the same act.... With mandatory minimums, the privileged can still get off easy. Leading victims’ groups oppose mandatory minimums in part because judges and juries may be less likely to convict at all if they are uncomfortable with imposing a long sentence on a ‘sympathetic’ (read: white and wealthy) person.”
Natasha Minsker, director of the ACLU of California’s Center for Advocacy and Policy, agrees that this reaction to the Turner case isn’t necessarily the right answer.
“One very high-profile criminal justice issue gets the headlines. Legislators jump to do something, and that leads to bad policy,” she said to the Los Angeles Times.
Judge Persky faced harsh criticism for his leniency in Turner’s sentencing, and as of September 6, he will no longer hear criminal cases. The transfer to civil courts was of his own request, according to the Santa Clara County Superior Court.