Was Brock Turner’s Sentence a Slap on the Wrist?

On June 2nd, Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced former Stanford University athlete Brock Turner to six months in jail and three years of probation after Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.

Turner’s seemingly light sentence sparked nationwide outrage, with a petition on change.org demanding Persky’s resignation getting more than 1 million signatures. Critics allege that Turner would have been punished more harshly if he hadn’t been a white, celebrated Stanford athlete from a relatively privileged background.

Many questions remain in the wake of Turner’s sentencing. For one thing, what could Judge Persky’s rationale have been for giving Turner what some have called a slap on the wrist? Also, what is the expected sentence in sexual assault cases like Turner’s? And did the judge make a horrible mistake in how he punished Turner?

The Rationale Behind Judge Perskys Sentence

Although Brock Turner has been labeled by many as a rapist, this is not, in California and in many other states, technically the case. Under California law, rape is defined as “an act of sexual intercourse” while a victim is unconscious or incapable of giving consent.

In other words, because Brock Turner did not penetrate the victim with his penis, he cannot legally be considered to have raped her. This legal distinction between rape and sexual assault caused the two most serious charges leveled against Turner—rape of an intoxicated person and rape of an unconscious person—to be dropped. This is a factor that (most likely) spared him a harsher sentence. Brock Turner

Instead of rape, a jury convicted Turner of assault with the intent to commit rape of an unconscious person; sexual penetration of an unconscious person; and sexual penetration of an unconscious person—all felonies. While Turner faced a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison, prosecutors recommended that Judge Persky impose a six-year prison term.

Judge Persky instead sentenced Turner to six months in county jail and three years’ probation, and required that Turner register as a sex offender. When announcing Turner’s sentence, Judge Persky cited the defendant’s youth as well as lack of a prior criminal history as mitigating factors. Persky also stated that he believed a prison sentence would have a “severe impact” on the defendant and that he did not believe Turner would be a danger to others.

Critics noted the similarities between Persky and the defendant’s backgrounds —like Turner, Persky attended Stanford, where he played lacrosse. However, it is important to keep in mind that Santa Clara County’s probation department also supported a “moderate” jail sentence for Turner. In their recommendation to the judge, the probation department mentioned Turner’s lack of a criminal history as well as their belief that his high intoxication level during the sexual assault reduced the seriousness of his crime.

What Penalties Have Others Charged With Sexual Assault Received?

Legal experts around America expressed disbelief at the sentence handed down to Brock Turner. Sex crimes prosecutor Dmitry Gorin told the Los Angeles Times that he could not think of a similar case in his area where a defendant convicted by a jury of a violent crime avoided prison. He stated that it is very unusual for someone convicted of such a crime to receive probation.

Information comparing how Turner’s sentence compares to the sentences of others convicted of sexual assault is hard to come by. Although a 1997 Bureau of Justice Statistics report said that the average sexual assault prison sentence was 6 1/2 years with three years served, Ohio State University Professor Douglas Berman said that a lack of data on sexual assault sentencing makes it hard to judge the relative severity of Turner’s sentence.

So Did Judge Persky Make The Wrong Decision?

Not everyone thinks the sentence Judge Persky imposed on Turner is too lenient. Santa Clara County public defender Sajid Khan told CBSNEWS.com that he doubts Turner’s race and affluence influenced Judge Persky’s sentence. Khan stated that no one has been able to give an example of a case in which a minority defendant received a harsher sentence than Brock Turner after being convicted of a similar crime. Khan pointed out that, regardless of the length of Turner’s time in custody, he will have to register as a sex offender and will be labeled a felon for life.

Although much of the public discourse surrounding Brock Turner’s sentence has failed to discuss how he must register as a sex offender, registration is not something to be taken lightly. Restrictive registration laws make it almost impossible for those on the sex offender registry to find or keep jobs and housing. It is almost certain that Brock Turner’s life will never reach its former potential just because he has to register as a sex offender.

However, any thought that a few months in jail, probation and having to register as a sex offender are punishment enough for Brock Turner disappears when you consider that he has not, to this day, acknowledged sexually assaulting his victim. During his sentencing, Turner told the court: “For anybody’s life to be impacted by my actions…makes me want to live the rest of my life to change it.” This vague statement about “anybody’s life” fails to make any mention of Turner’s victim and the irrevocable harm he has caused her.

Strangely, Judge Persky admitted in court that Turner may never acknowledge that he sexually assaulted his victim—“I don’t think that bridge will ever be crossed,” Persky said. It is troubling to think the judge believes someone as dishonest as Brock Turner is really not a danger to others. It seems that in the case of Brock Turner, the wrong sentence was indeed given.

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