Los Angeles Assistant District Attorney Michele Hanisee was gobsmacked when California lawmakers raged against the light sentence meted out to a former Stanford student convicted of sexually assaulting a woman while she was passed out behind a campus trash bin. Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner, 20, to six months in jail — he's likely to serve a mere three months — as well as three years of probation and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. Outraged at this headline-grabbing punishment, 16 Democratic Assembly members and senators wrote to Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen urging him to appeal the sentence, which they described as a "slap on the wrist." And 15 of those lawmakers also asked the California Commission on Judicial Performance to review Perksy's ruling for possible "improper misconduct." Turner, they wrote, "is an upper middle class, white student-athlete who was privileged enough to earn both admission and an athletic scholarship to a highly selective university, just as Judge Persky himself did."
Hanisee considered the lawmaker letters to be "really empty publicity seeking gestures." She did a pronounced eye roll when she saw Assembly member Shirley Weber, D-California, among the signatories. Readers of this column may recall Weber as the author of a bill that would allow felons to vote in county jail. AB 2466, which passed in the Assembly, would allow future Brock Turners to vote from county jails. Oddly, and yet predictably, all but one Assembly member who signed the anti-judge letters on the Turner sentence — the exception is Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-California — voted to allow felons to vote in jail.
Hanisee had her eye on another crazy soft-on-crime bill that Weber introduced. AB 2590, also known as the Restorative Justice Act, would amend existing law to stipulate that the purpose of sentencing is no longer punishment, but "public safety achieved through accountability, rehabilitation, and restorative justice." Under AB 2590, Hanisee wrote in a newsletter for California's Assistant District Attorneys Association, "judges would have the ability to impose 'community-based punishment' for all criminal defendants — including those convicted of sex offenses." The means more sentences like Brock Turner's.
"Accountability includes traditional forms of punishment, including prison or jail time," responded Joe Kocurek of Weber's office. "It means actions have consequences. It applies to other approaches to dealing with criminal behavior as well." Alternative approaches would not be used "without the consent and participation of the victims or their families."
The Stanford victim, Santa Clara Assistant District Attorney Jay Boyarsky told me, "gave the world a gift." He compared her statement about watching the man who abused her get a light sentence (because he too had been drinking) with Martin Luther King's letter from a Birmingham jail. That letter hit a chord with women who have seen predators scope out easy victims, then plead intoxication as a mitigating factor.
The victim appears to have enjoyed many of the same privileges as her assailant. As a result, perhaps, she was so eloquent that anyone who read her statement felt a wrenching in the gut at the injustice of what she endured. If the assault had not happened on a college campus, if the victim had not protested with forceful words, and a judge meted out a light sentence, this story would not be news; it would be an example of the community-based punishment Weber and Sacramento Democrats want to expand.
Since Jerry Brown became governor (again) in 2010, he has worked with the Legislature to peel back tough-on-crime laws. He doesn't use soft-on-crime language, he talks about reasonable punishment for violent offenders and paring back the high cost of incarceration. It sounds great, but when the state passes laws that reduce penalties, there are more short-timers — and many of them are not first-time offenders. There's this whole movement against tough sentences, noted Criminal Justice Legal Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. Brock Turner is what happens when you give judges "unlimited discretion to go lenient.">
Photo credit: North Charleston