Like so many others, I was, and continue to be, outraged by the sentencing of Brock Turner last month after he was convicted of three counts of sexual assault. It felt wrong that Judge Perksy lowered Brock’s sentence below the minimum for a horrific crime that is common, underreported, and largely unprosecuted. It’s monstrous to dismiss the profoundly traumatic impact that these crimes have on victims in avoidance of the impact incarceration can have on perpetrators. It isn’t justice when privilege upon privilege becomes an excuse for rape, for inflicting trauma, for ruining a life. I’m disheartened by the relentless apathy we exhibit in the face of rape. I read the survivor’s statement and wept at her pain, wept that she had to be so strong and passionate after experiencing such trauma, and then re-experience it again and again and again throughout the proceedings. I’m sickened that our legal system so failed to hear her voice over the wail of Brock Turner, mourning his lost privilege.
(There shouldn’t be a “but.” I don’t want there to be a “but.”)
But I don’t believe in incarceration.
I hate that Brock Turner successfully shielded himself from repercussions by blaming “drinking and sexual promiscuity,” as though promiscuity has anything to do with the assault of someone who’s unconscious; as though alcohol consumption inevitably ends in rape. I hate that his “lost future” is more important than what the survivor lost – “[her] worth, [her] privacy, [her] energy, [her] time, [her] safety, [her] intimacy, [her] confidence.” I want Brock Turner and other people who commit rape and sexual assault to go to prison for long enough to reflect the horrible crimes they commit, because that’s what justice looks like in our system.
But I don’t actually think that incarceration is justice at all. It won’t undo what he did. It won’t make sure he never hurts anyone again. It won’t make her whole.
What's more, incarcerating perpetrators of rape will not end rape. Within three years of release, 46% of convicted rapists are arrested for another crime. Within 15 years of release, 24% recommit sexual crimes, a high rate considering that two-thirds of rapes and sexual assaults are unreported and only 2% of reported rapes actually result in conviction.
The Stanford survivor repeated the outcome she wanted from the proceeding multiple times in her statement: “What I truly wanted was for Brock to get it, to understand and admit to his wrongdoing […] We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on.” But she, too, seems ambivalent. She said that she didn’t “want Brock to rot away in prison,” but that a sentence of a year or less is a mockery. She would have accepted a lighter sentence if he’d admitted his guilt and remorse, but his sentence should clearly communicate the seriousness of rape. Maybe this dissonance, on her part and mine, stems from the limited and unsatisfying options the legal system offers: only innocence or guilt; freedom or incarceration and a lifetime of revoked rights and collateral consequences. There isn’t room for healing, for accepting responsibility and sincerely trying to rehabilitate; there is only more damage, endlessly.
I don’t know what to do with this conflict. I don’t know how to square the outrage and horror of this moment – along with the overwhelming commonality of rape and sexual assault that are not reported, not prosecuted, and not convicted – with the knowledge that the carceral system is a seat of dehumanization and racist social control; that it serves to punish the poor and marginalized; that it doesn’t stop people from reoffending.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s no room for ambivalence when someone has violated you in this way, when that person has dragged you over the coals, forcing you to relive that violation again and again and again while silencing your voice. Maybe there is only room for punishment and retribution, for a loud, unequivocal NO, because, the Stanford survivor's words, “we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error. The consequences of sexual assault needs to be severe enough that people feel enough fear to exercise good judgment even if they are drunk, severe enough to be preventative.”
But I can’t help wanting more. I can’t help wanting our justice system to hold people accountable for rape and sexual assault, while also wanting that accountability to not be inhumane, socially damaging, and ineffective. I want our justice system to take rape seriously and work towards ending it without re-traumatizing the survivor. I want perpetrators to be rehabilitated in truth, not dehumanized and marginalized to the point that reoffending is almost inevitable. I want a justice system that is actually just.
Lara Hengelbrok is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising third-year student at the University of Washington School of Law. She received a PILA Grant to pursue public interest work and hopes to work towards ensuring access to quality education and curriculum reform. She is also a baking goddess and unapologetic pop-culture junkie.