California Isn’t Sure How to Fix Sexual Assault Problem Without Adding to Mass Incarceration

The California legislature unanimously passed a bill Monday that would require prison time for anyone convicted of sexually assaulting someone who is unconscious or severely intoxicated.

Photo: Gabrielle Lurie/AFP/Getty Images

The California legislature unanimously passed a bill Monday that would require prison time for anyone convicted of sexually assaulting someone who is unconscious or severely intoxicated.

Lawmakers introduced the proposed bill in June, two weeks after former Stanford University student-athlete Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail on three counts of sexual assault. Turner is scheduled to be released from Santa Clara County Jail on Friday, three months into his sentence.

“Rape is rape, and rapists like Brock Turner shouldn’t be let off with a slap on the wrist,” Assemblyman Evan Low, a Democrat from Campbell, California, said in a statement. “While we can’t go back and change what happened, we can make sure it never happens again.”

The bill, intended to close the loophole that helped Turner get a light sentence, reignited a longstanding debate over mandatory prison time.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not said whether he will sign the legislation, but it contradicts one of his own ballot measures. Proposition 57 seeks to allow those convicted of a nonviolent felony to be eligible for parole after serving the primary sentence for their primary offense, excluding any enhancements or consecutive sentencing. The proposition is a turnaround for Brown, who signed a bill mandating prison time for serious crimes when he first became governor in 1977.

“One of the key unintended consequences was the removal of incentives for inmates to improve themselves, to refrain from gang activity, using narcotics, otherwise misbehaving,” he said, discussing Proposition 57. “Nothing that would give them the reward of turning their life around.”

Under California law, sexual assault of an unconscious or severely intoxicated person is considered a nonviolent felony, but Turner’s sentencing sparked allegations that the judge was influenced by race and class bias. The judge, Aaron Persky, said “a prison sentence would have a severe impact” on Turner. Persky has since given up proceeding over criminal cases.

Yet to advocates of prison reform, the proposed legislation follows a familiar and sinister pattern.

“We share in the outrage at Mr. Turner’s actions, but worry that this law could cause more harm than good,” wrote editor Alexandra Brodsky and former Yale Law School classmate Claire Simonich in the New York Times. “History shows that this reform would not deter violence and most likely would perpetuate punitive racial and class disparities.”

The ACLU of California has also vocally opposed the bill. “The well-intentioned mandatory minimum sentence this bill creates will have negative impacts on communities of color and other unintended consequences,” said Natasha Minsker, director of the organization’s Center for Advocacy and Policy.

Nina Chaudhary, co-founder of the online activist group UltraViolet, a group that fights sexism, said the legislation would add to a problematic system. “While it is long past time that our justice system take the crime of rape seriously,” she said, “we need judges who focus on finding justice for rape survivors, not the rehashing of bad policies that rig the system against poor people and people of color.”

At New York magazine, Eric Levitz argued that the proposed legislation pits the progressives’ twin goals of gender equality and ending mass incarceration in opposition to each other. “To end mass incarceration, progressives will need to persuade their fellow citizens that we can reduce penalties for violent crime without reducing our concern for its victims,” he wrote. “The movement inspired by the Brock Turner case argued the opposite — it equated a judge’s decision to spare Turner a lengthy jail sentence with a callous indifference to the woman he victimized.”

Turner was convicted in March of three felony counts of sexual assault of an unconscious woman. The case attracted national attention after the victim’s court statement, which was reprinted in full by BuzzFeed, went viral.

“I told the probation officer I do not want Brock to rot away in prison. I did not say he does not deserve to be behind bars,” the woman who Turner assaulted said in a court statement. “The probation officer’s recommendation of a year or less in county jail is a soft time-out, a mockery of the seriousness of his assaults, and of the consequences of the pain I have been forced to endure.”

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