Brock Turner’s early release from prison and the account from the woman he sexually assaulted have rightfully drawn attention to the often improper judicial handling of sexual assault. However, the California Assembly has taken the wrong steps to address this problem.
California legislators approved AB 2888, a measure mandating prison sentencing for individuals convicted of sexually assaulting unconscious victims last Tuesday. Before the measure passed, only those convicted of forcefully assaulting conscious survivors received mandated prison sentences. The measure currently seeks Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature to be enacted as law.
In an effort to decrease unfair sentencing in sexual assault cases through mandatory minimum sentencing, California lawmakers may be unintentionally promoting it. The problem is not that the mandatory minimum sentencing for sexual assault felons needs to be more stringent. Rather, those convicted of sexual assault need to be sentenced appropriately – a problem inherent to the judicial system and best addressed by confronting jury bias.
Turner’s lenient punishment for his assault of an unconscious woman – six months, of which he served just three – compelled legislators to act quickly in order to remediate a perceived flaw in the judicial system. However, previous reactive legislation, such as California’s three-strikes law, have been largely unsuccessful, with critics citing the provisions as a significant contribution to prison overcrowding in California.
Additionally, mandatory minimum sentencing won’t necessarily fix the problem at hand. These laws can often increase the burden of proof necessary to obtain a conviction, making juries and judges more hesitant to convict individuals accused of assault.
Mandatory minimums also put defendants who are unable to afford top-notch attorneys at risk of being wrongly accused and given a lengthy sentence for a crime they may not have committed. And they don’t just affect members of a lower socioeconomic class. According to a 2012 study by researchers at the University of Michigan, individuals from disproportionately convicted communities – often poor people of color – are more likely to be subject to wrongful sentences. That’s why many, including the ACLU, have spoken out against the measure.
A judge’s light sentence and biased views allowed Turner to get away with a slap on the wrist, not the judicial system. In fact, biased judges and juries can pose a much greater threat to justice than additional judicial provisions.
If the assembly is intent on reforming the way the judicial system handles sexual assault, they should first devote more resources into funding research that questions the role of jury bias toward the accused in the conviction of sexual assault cases. A study from researchers at Duke University found all-white juries in Florida convict black defendants 16 percent more often than they do whites. Similar biases may be at play in sexual assault cases.
The sentiment that motivated California legislators to pass the measure is certainly a significant step forward in signaling attention toward properly addressing sexual assault, but the measure passed by state lawmakers is not solving the problem – it merely placates the symptoms. And in the long-run, that may do more harm than good.