Is Justice Actually Possible? Brock Turner, Sexual Assault, and Failed Prisons

Why We Are Really So Obsessed With Brock Turner’s Sentence?

In early June, news broke that Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. The outraged response—bolstered in large part by the public release of a letter from the victim of the attack—generated an enormous discussion and a resounding call for justice for sexual assault victims.

The primary reasons for this outrage:

  • Turner’s status as a swimmer at Stanford was constantly brought up. Critics said this should be irrelevant
  • Turner is a white male. Critics pointed out that if he were black, the sentencing would likely have been more severe
  • Judge Pesky wrote of his sentencing decision

“A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a         danger to others.”

Critics argued this shifted the focus from the severe harm caused to the victim by       Turner’s actions and led to an insufficient punishment for the crime. This anger was only intensified by the revelation that Turner would likely only serve three months in prison.

These responses have surprisingly little to do with Turner as an individual and a whole lot to do with the systemic nature of the response to his crime.


  1. Anger over the length of Turner’s present sentence is in sharp contrast to a decades-long critique of America’s prison system for failing to rehabilitate inmates. When this is considered, it seems that while Judge Persky’s choice of words may have not been perfect, the message is largely agreed upon. A prison sentence would have a severe and likely negative impact on Turner. This is the point of prison.  Persky didn’t believe Turner was dangerous to other people, and so he decided the benefit of keeping him locked up did not outweigh these negative effects. Many people acknowledge this is true of the penal system. In jail it’s likely Turner would be sexually assaulted. There’s also evidence that people who have been incarcerated are more likely to suffer from PTSD and those who have been imprisoned often develop an illness called Post Incarceration Syndrome.

The consensus is that sexual assault is a serious crime worthy of severe punishment. What’s deeply disheartening about this situation is not Brock’s sentence in particular, but the reality that, given the current state of our prison system, true justice might be impossible.

(It’s also worth noting that Turner is serving much more time than most rapists. A 2012 Rainn analysis found that only 3 out of 100 rapists will spend even one day in prison.)

  1. Opponents have also directed anger toward Turner’s family and friends who wrote letters in his defense. His childhood friend, Leslie Rasmussen wrote a letter defending Turner, saying “rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.” In response, people wrote her death threats and boycotted her band. She wrote another response on Facebook clarifying that she was asked by the court to provide a character testimony about Turner.

Turner’s father wrote in a letter used to recommend prison time that his son’s life should not be ruined for “twenty minutes of action.”

(You can read the victim’s letter to the court, where she criticizes these claims, here.)

People were pissed. Perhaps these letters were ill worded or misguided, maybe they are completely wrong. The fact remains they were written specifically to the judge  with the explicit purpose of pleading for less jail time for a friend and son. Character witnesses are brought in to help fill in the picture of the person who committed, or was the victim of, a crime. Character letters are often written to the judge expressing positive character qualities of the defendant and explaining why those should lead to less jail time. It is generally expected that these letters will be kept private.

  1. In Turner’s letter to the judge he blamed most of his actions on alcohol. People were quick to point out that being drunk is not an excuse to rape someone. His perception of the motivations for what occurred are drastically different from the victim’s and the court of public opinion.

Legally, this shouldn’t matter. Our justice system does not require defendants to acknowledge the same motivations for their crime as someone else alleges. To find out how that sort of justice system works, watch Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Sure, it might be gross for Turner to blame this on his drinking instead of his character, but having a “correct” view of his reasons for committing this crime is not a requirement of the law.

Most people accused of crimes claim either to be not guilty because they literally didn’t do it or not guilty because maybe they did it but there were extenuating circumstances making them less culpable for the crime in question. The law is an evolving being and current understanding of what constitutes right and wrong and culpability is subject to change. Sexual assault is illegal. Turner has been convicted of this crime. It is not, however, illegal to believe that you committed sexual assault for a different reason than the masses, the victim, the jury, or the judge believe you did.

It makes sense for people to be outraged because this is a horrific crime, and the easiest way for people to express outrage in 2016 is the internet.

Here are all of the problems that need to be addressed in order for justice to be served in this situation:

  1. Remove the privilege of white males, who do not receive criminal sentencing at the same levels as minority men who commit the same crimes
  2. Create a prison system that works and is safe and rehabilitative
  3. Live in a world where men do not feel entitled to women’s bodies and attempt to attack them

This isn’t just about Turner. It’s about a system, the laws keeping the system in place, and the cultural assumptions that are the foundations of those laws.

But outrage without a reasonable target is unsatisfying. Writing a piece condemning this conviction will not push a bill through congress, re-calibrate the minds of 31 million males in America, or undo what happened to the victim of this crime. For the story to be satisfying in a 24 hour news cycle, it has to be simple.

The truth is never as a simple as a click bait headline. So what if Brock Turner did get a longer sentence? He still would have committed a terrible that cannot be undone. He would spend more time in prison where it’s likely he would be abused and sexually assaulted in a system that largely fails to improve the character of those who enter it. The victim has still been put through something horrific. The world is still filled with racism, sexism, and privilege.

In some ways it’s a hopeful reminder of how desperate people are for justice. It’s also a reminder of the lengths we’ll go to fix problems quickly and lash out at those who voice an unpopular opinion. Don’t like a sentence? Start a petition to remove the judge from office. Angry  when someone stands up for their friend’s character? Boycott their concerts.

We are desperate to do something, to put a band-aid on our own powerlessness. I wonder what we would find if we were brave enough to peel the band aid back and face the wound itself.


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