By Audrey Bomse, Sharlyn Grace, and the Mass Incarceration Committee of the NLG
In January 2015, Brock Turner sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster outside a Stanford University frat party. He was convicted of felony sexual assault and received six months in jail—far less than the 14 year maximum. Outrage at Turner’s short sentence, culminating in only three months served, led to the passage of a three-year mandatory minimum sentencing law (A2888) for sexual assault of a drunk or unconscious person in California. It also led to a petition drive to recall the sentencing judge, who voluntarily stepped back from the criminal docket. (Public defenders started a competing petition in support of judicial discretion.)
California’s A2888 bucks the recent national trend away from mandatory minimums, a shift born out of our country’s mass incarceration crisis. Alarmingly, this punitive effort came largely from “progressives.” Turner is 2016’s poster child for harsher sentencing: privileged by his race, gender, and class positions—hardly representative of most people we’ve locked away. While Turner’s sentence reflects unequal access to leniency and compassion, mandating more retributive “justice” expands the reach of the same criminal legal system currently causing so much harm in poor communities of color.
A2888 will also not deter sexual harm or fix racial disparities in sentencing. As Michelle Anderson, a leading scholar of rape law, points out: “Mandatory minimums have not worked in response to challenges posed by other kinds of crime. There is no reason that mandatory minimums would work as a response to the real problem of sexual assault.” A coalition of 25 feminist organizations urged Governor Brown not to sign A2888, saying, “[w]hile some support this legislation in hopes that it will address racial biases in sentencing that worked in Turner’s favor, mandatory minimums have in fact exacerbated racial and class disparities in prosecution.”
The simple truth is that prisons do not prevent harm. There is ample reason to think mass incarceration and the resulting destruction of communities make us less safe. Our prison sentences are harsh global outliers, yet we are not safer.
The NLG should oppose new mandatory minimums. In 2015, the NLG passed a Resolution in Support of Prison Abolition, understanding that prisons “are designed to maintain economic and racial inequality, legitimize capitalism, and feed corporate wealth,” and recognizing that far from supporting survivors and victims, prisons legitimize state violence and “detract from grassroots antiviolence strategies, such as community accountability processes, restorative and transformative justice practices, and other survivor centered efforts.”
The joint statement of Incite! Women of Color against Violence and Critical Resistance challenges us to center the need for safety from violence at the same time as we push back on criminalization and incarceration: “Reliance on the criminal justice system… [leaves victims feeling] disempowered and alienated [and] has also promoted an individualistic approach toward ending violence such that the only way people think they can intervene in stopping violence is to call the police…This reliance has shifted our focus from developing ways communities can collectively respond to violence.” If we want to see less violence, we must consistently refocus our attention from simply punishing individuals who commit harm to preventing harm by addressing its structural causes.
Controversial cases like Turner’s are chances to have necessary conversations about alternatives to punishment and incarceration. As advocates and concerned community members, it is our job to craft social policies and responses to harm that are based on our best impulses and not our worst. Accountability for harm can be meaningful and transformative; punishment and increased incarceration is far from the only response possible.