Brock Turner, the Stanford University student convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a frat party, filed a 172-page appeal with California’s 6th District Court of Appeals in December 2017 asking for a new trial, despite receiving a lenient sentence. Turner’s victim’s statement on the sexual assault and rape sparked a national conversation that has now reached a fever pitch. The remaining question is whether this rising tide of public support for victims of sexual violence is enough to affect concrete legal and legislative changes.
Turner’s appeal claims the prosecutor wrongfully characterized the assault as taking place behind a dumpster and further accuses Judge Aaron Persky of depriving Turner of his right to a fair trial based on the jury instructions and Persky’s decision to exclude testimony from Turner’s character witnesses at trial. Judge Persky came under fire, and brought Turner’s case into the national spotlight, when he sentenced Turner to six months in prison and three years’ probation and required Turner to register as a sex offender. Turner was later released early from jail for good behavior, inciting outrage and further accusations that his ninety days of incarceration reflected the justice system’s failure to protect victims of sexual violence.
While Turner’s appeal brings up fresh anger for many, the national dialog around sexual assault has only continued to heat up. Time Magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year was simply the “Silence Breakers,” highlighting individuals and celebrities who spoke out against sexual misconduct, assault, and rape through court cases, movements, or by publicly sharing their stories. The #MeToo movement dominated social media and the Golden Globes red carpet. Former powerful film producer Harvey Weinstein was disgraced when a flood of women, including A-List actresses, brought his decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct into the spotlight; he ultimately lost control of his company and status as a Hollywood power player.
Although the #MeToo movement is amplifying victims’ voices, changes in the U.S. criminal justice system are not yet apparent. While the sentencing in Turner’s case was a fierce point of contention, lenient sentencing for sexual offenders is not the only issue plaguing sexual assault cases in the criminal justice system. A more prevalent problem is that convictions for sexually violent crimes in the United States are rare; out of every 1000 rapes, 93 perpetrators will never be convicted. In light of this shockingly low number, Turner’s conviction is almost an anomaly. However, the U.S. justice system’s dismal treatment of sexual violence victims and wariness in sentencing perpetrators is not, in itself, unique.
Stories from other countries, including world leaders like Canada, the U.K., and Australia, detail equally depressing track records of not protecting women from sexual violence and failing to prosecute and/or appropriately sentence perpetrators. Recently, a judge in Canada moved the timing of a ninety day jail sentence for a twenty-one-year-old student so it wouldn’t conflict with his college courses, despite his conviction for soliciting nude pictures from a thirteen-year-old girl. In the U.K. there was a twenty-five percent uptick recorded over five years for “warnings” issued to offenders of serious crimes, including 1,100 to sex offenders, sixteen of which were for rapes. These warnings allow perpetrators to admit guilt for their crimes while avoiding court proceedings and keeping their records mostly clear.
The startling lack of justice for victims of sexual violence, across both developed nations and developing countries, demonstrates a pervasive problem that reaches far beyond Brock Turner and his recent appeal. Globally, thirty-five percent of women have experienced either domestic or sexual violence from a partner or sexual violence from someone else. Moreover, the economic side effects are massive, and the combined global cost of violence against women could soon top $1.5 trillion annually, roughly the equivalent of Canada’s annual gross domestic product. This number includes losses sustained from time away from paid work. Some studies from India show eighty-two percent of Indian women are reducing their working hours or even quitting their jobs so they do not commute after dark, when the risk of assault is much higher. In Uganda, nearly ten percent of all violent incidents against women resulted in their loss of paid work and a half month’s salary.
Clearly, if one in three women worldwide has already experienced some type of violence in her lifetime and the monetary cost continues to climb in the trillions, both the laws and the behavior concerning violence against women must change. As despicable crimes continue to happen across the world, there have been some positive measures taken in response to public sentiment and outrage. Following the horrific, fatal gang rape of a female student in Delhi, India in 2012, the Indian parliament quickly passed harsher rape laws. These laws included new categories of crimes like stalking, acid violence, and voyeurism and explicitly laid out that a women’s lack of physical struggle does not imply consent. Yet these reforms have done little to curb the onslaught of sexual attacks across the country. Most recently, a sickening case in Delhi involved an eight-month-old infant who was raped by an adult family member and needed hours of surgery to fix damage to her internal organs. Rape culture is still prevalent in India and demonstrates that behavior is not often quick to follow legal reform.
However, one reactionary, yet unique, approach in the United Kingdom provides a safety net within sentencing of violent crimes and allows victims to potentially influence their offender’s sentencing, even many years later. The Unduly Lenient Sentencing procedure allows victims to challenge their perpetrator’s sentence if they view it as too lenient. This program includes reexamining and adjusting sentencing for crimes, including rape. In 2016, 141 prison terms were extended under the scheme, 41 of which were for sexual crimes. The option to challenge a lenient sentence may be more appealing to victims over legislative changes to sentencing standards, similar to the sentencing laws enacted by the California legislature after Brock Turner’s trial.
After the widespread outrage over Turner’s sentencing, the California legislature passed a mandatory sentencing law for sexual assaults of unconscious victims or those unable to give consent due to intoxication. Yet, there is concern that previous reactive legislation has not been a successful deterrent for crime and this approach will not realistically benefit victims. Because mandatory sentencing increases the burden of proof necessary to convict perpetrators, these laws can potentially backfire and give perpetrators an added layer of protection. Oftentimes, judges and juries are presumptively hesitant to convict people accused of sexual violence, because testimony is often “he said, she said.” Furthermore, critics point to the fact that mandatory sentencing is almost certain to disproportionately impact communities of color, like it has in other crimes.
However, a legislative approach to curbing violence against women still holds a strong potential for affecting lasting change. While instituting mandatory sentencing minimums through legislation may be misguided, countries that codify domestic legal protections for women demonstrate better gender equality, women’s development, and lower rates of female HIV rates. Moreover, as countries ratify the 2008 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) they become more likely to institute thorough legal protections for women on a state level. These laws may be reactionary, and cannot always guarantee a shift in local attitudes, but they are an important step towards cementing protections for women and victims of sexual and domestic violence.
In the United States, the 1995 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was a huge legislative victory for women’s groups and advocates that had been demanding more comprehensive federal legal protections for decades. VAWA included provisions focused on prevention of rape and battery and allocated money for victim services. It was subsequently expanded in 2000 and reauthorized in 2005 and prevention now includes educational and training programs for individuals ranging from health professionals to law enforcement and even judges. The original act was targeted at improving the criminal justice system’s response to violence against women and ensuring funding for services that benefit victims. However, while VAWA has increased prosecution rates for domestic violence in the U.S., there is little evidence that the legislation reduced incidences of gender-based violence since it was passed, leaving victims disillusioned.
Additionally, victims are powerless during U.S. criminal proceedings because cases are brought, dictated, and controlled by the government. Victims have no say in what charges are brought, plea bargains made, or sentences imposed; they cannot contribute or appeal at any stage. Introducing a system similar to the U.K.’s could give victims a voice in proceedings and, at the very least, provide a second avenue of recourse if they feel dissatisfied with the final sentencing.
Brock Turner’s appeal opens a fresh wound during a time rife with demands for substantive justice for victims of sexual assault in the United States and across the world. While Turner’s sentencing was ultimately the source of controversy, his case highlights the two ways in which victims feel betrayed by the U.S. criminal justice system: the small number of convictions for sexually violent crimes and lenient sentences for offenders. Although one in two American women have been victims of sexual violence and the cost of violence against women in the U.S. could top $500 billion annually, this is not reflected in national conviction statistics for sexually violent crimes. The disconnect between estimated crime numbers and the low conviction rates for sexual offenders lends weight to commentary that the justice system does little, if anything, to provide victims with real justice.
While the conversation around sexual crimes against women is now robust, the path forward within the U.S. criminal justice system is unclear. Whether the potential economic, legislative, and electoral consequences can wield influence and impact change has yet to be determined and a remedy may take years, or even decades. So while change in the criminal justice system is necessary for cementing real protections for victims, perhaps a small, recent victory is the enduring strength of the national conversation. The issue has not faded from society’s conscious in the past year, but instead is gaining steam and becoming a major political talking point. Indeed, the real strength of the conversation today is that victims can raise their voice, join the conversation, and know they have the formidable power of public sentiment behind them.