Nineteen-year-old Brock Turner received a six-month jail sentence for raping an unconscious woman. Her heartrending impact statement drew national attention to the case, stoking outrage at the judge’s use of discretion in handing down such a light sentence.
The uproar is well-founded. It is natural and necessary to wonder: in this era of the mass incarceration of black and brown men and women, many of whom remain locked up for crimes far less grave than Turner’s, why was this young man offered such leniency?
Why did the judge invoke the negative impact that prison would have on this kid’s life, when we so cavalierly lock up poor people of color and throw away the key? Doesn’t this case embody so much of what is wrong with our society, from gross racial inequities to the constant violation of and violence against women’s bodies? Shouldn’t this kid be put away for a long time, just as he surely would be were he not a white Stanford swimmer with Olympic aspirations?
Here’s what I know: Yes, this case represents one way in which a culture of sexual violence persists. Yes, our criminal justice system often perpetuates structural racism and patriarchy, and this case is but one example among many of that fact. And if we believe that the criminal justice system exists primarily to punish those who commit crimes, then perhaps, yes, this kid should get locked up for a long time, just as he likely would if he were born with different skin.
Brock Turner received a six-month jail sentence because the judge considered the severe negative impact that prison would have on his life. And guess what? He’s right. Prison would have a severe impact on this guy’s life because jail and prison have a severe negative impact on everyone.
Locking people in cells does not right their wrongs or make us a safer or healthier society. Still, in the majority of cases, there is little or no consideration given to the negative impact incarceration will have on the defendant, or on his or her family and community. The truth is that Brock Turner did have so much to lose because he had so much: his whiteness afforded him privileges and comforts that his black and brown counterparts, especially those in poor communities, may never know.
Herein lies the outrageousness of this sentence: it is proof that we invest in and value white lives more than others. The judge saw the potential return on society’s investment in this kid and was unwilling to throw it all away.
I’d like to think the criminal justice system was meant for more than punishment. Unfortunately, incarceration has come to be a proxy for justice in this country; it’s our default response to crime and one of the only tools in our toolbox. We take for granted the utility of incarceration in righting wrongs and satisfying the needs of crime victims because we don’t know another way.
But a long prison sentence will not undo the profound harm done to this woman that night, the scars of which she will bear forever. And while advocating for a tough sentence seems like the reasonable response to many who are rightfully outraged—because after all, the woman he raped has lived in her own version of prison since the night he raped her—we should be having a different conversation. We should be interrogating what we mean when we say “justice.” We should be figuring out a new response to people who do serious harm to others, one that is grounded in repairing that harm.
Such responses already exist and have proven to be effective, such as the Common Justice program at the Vera Institute of Justice, a grantee of the Open Society Foundations. Common Justice diverts violent felony cases into a restorative dialogue process in which all interested parties come together to identify the needs and interests of those harmed and develop appropriate measures for holding responsible individuals accountable. We need more programs like this.
We cannot in good conscience call for the end of mass incarceration while simultaneously advocating for a harsher sentence for Brock Turner, especially when we know that the majority of people in American prisons are serving time for violent offenses and that the excessively long sentences they receive are counterproductive and inhumane. Perhaps the problem on which we should collectively focus is not the judge’s sentence but rather that his “leniency” is such an exception to the rule.
We are outraged by this case, and we should be. But I invite us all to channel our anger not towards seeking vengeance, but towards forging a new notion of justice for our society, a new set of tools for addressing violence through nonviolent means. To do so, we have to listen to crime survivors and figure out what we can do to make them whole.
In this case, the victim explicitly stated, “I do not want Brock to rot away in prison. … What I truly wanted was for Brock to get it, to understand and admit to his wrongdoing.”
We need to get to the bottom of what allows sexual violence to run rampant, and for those who perpetrate it to come face to face with the impact they have had. We must assess the damage that incarceration does to those who bear the brunt of it, most of whom don’t look like Brock Turner. We must honor the woman in this case, and the countless others she represents, by heeding her words and “trying to find some meaning in all of this suffering.”