In the wake of national outrage about the six-month jail sentence Brock Turner received after he was accused of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, and his subsequent release after just three months for "good behavior," California lawmakers are looking to change the way the state punishes rape.
Bill AB 2888 instructs that there be mandatory prison sentences for all people convicted of sexual assault. This would undercut the current state law that allows lighter jail sentences for offenders whose victims were unconscious or incapable of giving consent, which is why Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky gave Mr. Turner a six-month jail term, rather than the six years in prison the prosecutor pushed for.
The bill was passed in both the state Senate and the Assembly and awaits Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature or veto. Governor Brown has not yet indicated how he will proceed.
The highly critical public response to the sentence marked a major shift in public perceptions of how perpetrators and victims of rape should be treated, The Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teicher Khadaroo reported at the time:
It’s a level of outrage – and an outpouring of support for the survivor – that is unprecedented and encouraging, say scholars, activists, and legal professionals.
'People are saying, enough is enough – we have to find justice that doesn’t just punish the people who seek it' after a sexual assault, says Peter Lake, a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla., and an expert on Title IX, the civil rights law that outlines colleges’ obligations to respond to sexual harassment and gender violence.
'Public attitudes about appropriate punishment often drive change,' Professor Lake says.
Assemblymembers Evan Low and Bill Dodd, who co-authored the bill, are hoping to transform that outrage into legal change.
"Judge Persky's ruling was unjustifiable and morally wrong, however, under current state law it was within his discretion," Mr. Low told the Associated Press.
Persky has since recused himself from hearing criminal cases and has requested to be moved to another court, but has not given up his seat on the bench, despite calls from many individuals and advocacy groups for him to step down since Turner’s sentencing and the publication of a letter written by his victim.
The authors of the bill intended it not only as a way to ensure sex offenders come to justice, but to create a culture in which victims feel more comfortable coming forward with their accusations, and are well served by the justice system.
“If we let a rapist off with probation and little jail time, we re-victimize the victim, we dissuade other victims from coming forward and we send a message that sexual assault of an incapacitated victim is just no big deal,” Mr. Dodd told fellow legislators during floor debate in the Assembly.
The bill passed, with a great deal of support, at a time when lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are trying to move away from the practice of mandatory prison sentences to combat prison overcrowding and disproportionate sentencing of minorities. Critics of mandatory minimum sentences for drug charges say such requirements have been applied disproportionately to minority offenders.
In this case, however, the mandatory minimum is seen by some as a means to ensure that sexual offenders are treated equally, regardless of race. One of the chief complaints of the Turner sentence suggested that he had received a far lighter sentence than a minority offender would have received.
"When we broaden those criminal definitions, it can broaden the swath of persons that can be criminalized," Emily Austin, the director of advocacy for the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which declined to take a position on the bills, told the Associated Press. "And how that works out in the justice system can vary based on your race and class."
In addition to bill AB 2888, California state government has recently passed a number of bills recently that move to protect rape victims and ensure that rapists eventually come to justice, including a bill passed by the State Assembly that broadened the definition of rape and a bill passed by the State Senate that would abolish that statute of limitations on rape cases.
This report includes material from Reuters.