Editorial: Criminal sentencing decisions belong to judges, not the outraged public — even in the Stanford sexual assault case
If convicted criminals were sentenced by public poll, or a weighted average of outrage expressed on social media and radio talk shows, Stanford student and star swimmer Brock Allen Turner would be looking at more than just six months in jail and three years on probation for his 2015 sexual assault of an unconscious woman. He would do additional time for the offensive statement of his father that even six months was “a steep price for 20 minutes of action,” and a little more in the name of all the other campus assailants who have benefited from a variety of privileges — race, class, wealth, good looks, popularity. And perhaps even more for the statement by Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, rather alarming when taken out of context, that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”
Yes, a state prison sentence certainly would have a severe impact on Turner, and that’s the point. It would be punishment for a shocking and serious crime. If even the actual sentence of six months in county jail were indeed “a steep price,” it is important to remember that thousands of California inmates are where they are for actions that took place in even less than 20 minutes — the thrust of a knife in the heat of an argument, the squeeze of a trigger in a flash of anger, the unarmed assault on someone too frightened, too weak or too incapacitated to defend herself. Crimes are punished to protect the public, but also to keep a society’s moral balance. Or to put it another way, to provide justice. There is, and there must be, some element of retribution for serious crime. On that question, from this vantage point, six months for Turner seems like far too little.
For too long, well-publicized cases like Turner’s sent a fearful and angry nation in the opposite direction, removing much of the judge’s traditional discretion. The resulting system, much of which remains in place today, locked up too many people for too long while giving merely the illusion of being unbiased. Many states and the federal government are in the midst of a broad reevaluation of the criminal justice system and are returning some discretion to judges. That’s a healthy move, and it should not be derailed by our perception that one high-profile sentence let one perpetrator off too easily.
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