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Politics

In wake of Stanford sexual assault case, lawmakers once again pitch mandatory prison time

Brock Turner
Brock Turner appears in a Palo Alto courtroom on Feb. 2, 2015.
(Karl Mondon / Associated Press)

The public outrage after a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge sentenced a Stanford University student to six months in jail for sexual assault led California lawmakers to respond in a familiar way.

Two weeks after the sentencing, two Northern California legislators introduced a bill to ensure that anyone convicted of a similar crime in the future would receive a mandatory prison sentence.

“I think we need to make a clear statement to say this is unacceptable,” said Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), one of the bill’s authors.

New laws in response to high-profile incidents have contributed to scores of mandatory punishments in California going back decades, decisions that put the state at the forefront of the tough-on-crime movement that led to dramatically increased sentences for criminals but also presaged an era of prison overcrowding that led federal judges to conclude such conditions were unconstitutional.

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After mounting pressure following the 2009 federal court decision on prison overcrowding, Gov. Jerry Brown, lawmakers and voter initiatives have attempted to unwind parts of the state’s mandatory sentencing regime. A Brown-led measure on the November ballot, for instance, would allow nonviolent inmates to be eligible for parole more quickly than they are now.

Inspired by the Stanford case, Low and other Democratic supporters of the bill say they’re keenly aware of the criticisms of mandatory sentences, but that this bill simply closes what they call a loophole in sexual assault sentencing.

Currently, those convicted of rape using additional physical force must serve prison time. Perpetrators, like Brock Turner in the Stanford case, convicted of sexually assaulting someone who is unconscious or incapable of giving consent because of intoxication can receive a lesser sentence based on a judge’s discretion.

The bill, AB 2888, would ensure that those convicted under the latter scenario also would be sentenced to prison time.

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“Simply put, the definition of forcible rape -- whether or not they’re unconscious or intoxicated versus being conscious -- is absurd,” Low said.

Multiple Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, who has previously sponsored legislation to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, made similar comments during the Senate Committee on Public Safety’s June hearing on the bill, which advanced with bipartisan support.

Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), the committee chairwoman, blamed mandatory minimum sentencing for the state’s prison overpopulation problems. But she said lawmakers needed to send a message about the severity of sexual assault.  

“One of the things I’ve learned over 14 years in the Legislature is that everything is nuanced,” Hancock said in an interview. “It’s very hard to say never a mandatory minimum or always a mandatory minimum. In this particular case, I feel to bring the cultural change that we want, it has to be underscored that, ‘Fellows, this really isn’t behavior that’s going to be tolerated.’”

But those opposed to Low’s bill have seen this scenario play out before. In the mid-1990s, the murder of two young Californians sparked so-called three strikes mandatory sentencing laws and voter initiatives that promised imprisonment of 25 years to life after three felony convictions.

Though Low’s bill is significantly narrower in scope than that effort, the principle is the same, said Natasha Minsker, the director of the ACLU of California’s Center for Advocacy and Policy, noting that mandatory minimum sentencing has disproportionately affected poor people of color compared with middle-class white people like Turner.

“One very high-profile criminal justice issue gets the headlines. Legislators jump to do something, and that leads to bad policy,” Minsker said.

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The trend in California has been to reduce mandatory prison sentences and let some offenders out early. In 2011, Brown implemented a plan to send some low-level prison inmates to county jails as a way to reduce overcrowding. The next year, voters passed an initiative to soften the three strikes law, followed by another successful initiative to reclassify some felonies as misdemeanors two years later.

Legislatively, in 2014 Brown signed a bill to reduce penalties for certain drug crimes, and last year he vetoed 11 bills that would have created new crimes, saying he was wary of adding to the state’s list of punishments given high jail and prison populations.

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The governor, who in 1977 during his first term signed a bill mandating determinate sentences for the most serious crimes, lamented the “unintended consequences” of that effort when he announced his parole reform ballot measure earlier this year. Brown’s office declined to comment on AB 2888.

Christine Ward, the executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance advocacy group, has seen the change in lawmakers’ perspective on sentencing laws. She said she stopped pressing lawmakers to add crimes to the list of those considered violent and serious at least five years ago because they weren’t receptive.

Ward is a strong supporter of AB 2888 but also expressed frustration that it takes a specific incident like the Stanford case to move the Legislature toward increasing sentences for severe crimes.

“This is not something new,” Ward said. “It seems that when something like this happens, when a high-profile case happens, we see a shift. We see the legislators starting to listen.”

The Stanford case has brought substantial attention from lawmakers beyond AB 2888. On Thursday, Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose) introduced legislation that also would increase mandatory punishments by making prisoners sentenced after similar sexual assaults ineligible for early release. Assemblywomen Christina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) and Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) have written a separate bill to expand the definition of rape in state law to include other forms of penetration besides sexual intercourse, as in the Turner case.

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Members of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus also read aloud on the floor of the Senate portions of the graphic and detailed letter written by Turner’s victim, and the Women’s Caucus political action committee has been fundraising to support an effort to recall Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, who presided over the Turner case.

AB 2888 is currently in the Senate Appropriations Committee, which must hear all legislation that comes with a price tag to the state. Under state rules, the bill must advance from that committee by the end of next week.

liam.dillon@latimes.com

Follow me at @dillonliam on Twitter

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