The Price to Pay: A Look at Sentencing Following People v. Turner

By: Brooklee Hurst

Many have questioned the fairness and competency of the justice system as national media outlets shined a spotlight on the recent Brock Turner case. Turner, a swimmer at Stanford University, was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious, intoxicated victim and he received a short six-month sentence in county jail for his offenses. He was later released after serving only three months of that six-month sentence. The brief sentence outraged many, yet some may be comforted by sentencing statistics and jurisprudence that indicate Turner’s short punishment falls outside of the sexual assault sentencing “norm.”

Statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network show that out of every 1,000 rapes that are reported, 994 perpetrators will walk free. However, the majority of perpetrators that are convicted receive prison sentences. The Bureau of Justice’s most recent analysis of America’s 75 largest counties show that 84% of convicted rapists are sentenced to prison, 5% are sentenced to jail, and the remaining 11% receive probation. State statutes set forth appropriate punishments for offenses, but judges are given discretion to examine any aggravating or mitigating circumstances before declaring a final sentencing decision.

Louisiana’s criminal code imposes punishments for sexual assault ranging from life imprisonment to imprisonment for not less than five years, depending on whether the offense falls within the classification of first, second, or third degree rape. The rape of an intoxicated victim, like in Turner’s case, is classified as third degree rape in Louisiana, and includes a sentence of not more than 25 years imprisonment at hard labor, without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. State v. Williams is a Louisiana case similar to Turner’s in which Cameron Williams sexually penetrated an intoxicated victim without her consent. The Williams’ court adhered to the criminal code and sentenced Williams to the maximum sentence of twenty years imprisonment at hard labor without the benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.

Under the California Penal Code, the law of Turner’s jurisdiction, a conviction of felony sexual assault carries a possible sentence of several years in state prison, or time in county jail, depending on the circumstances of the case. In the Turner case, the Santa Clara County Probation Department recommended the court exercise discretion and make a finding of “unusual circumstances” in order for Turner to be sentenced to county jail, rather than state prison. Judge Aaron Perksy, the presiding judge in Turner’s case, considered many factors like Turner’s youth, lack of criminal record, and level of intoxication on the night of the assault before sentencing. Given the totality of the circumstances, Persky followed the Probation Department’s recommendation and sentenced Turner to a brief sentence in county jail.

Persky received harsh criticism for Turner’s lenient sentence and faced accusations of bias towards the privileged, white, male defendant. However, a review of Persky’s previous rulings reveals he previously sentenced a Caucasian male defendant, Michael Simpson, with no criminal record to over thirty years in prison for rape. The difference in Persky’s rulings highlights how each case is determined on a case-by-case basis and outcomes can vary depending on what a court views as aggravating or mitigating circumstances. This previous ruling may indicate a lack of bias on Persky’s part, yet many continue to view Persky’s decision as an abuse of judicial discretion.

The outrage following the Turner case led to the introduction of a new bill in California requiring longer sentences in state prison for the assault of unconscious victims. No longer will judges be able to cite “extraordinary circumstances” in order to issue shorter sentences to sexual offenders. This bill is a step towards limiting judicial discretion in order to avoid situations such as State of Montana v. Rambold, where a teacher served only 31 days in jail after raping a 14-year old student, who the judge described as “looking older than her years.” Fortunately, the national media attention surrounding the Turner case shed light on the nature of sexual assault sentencing in California, helping to ensure new offenders will receive a sentence fitting the severity of their offense.