In America, unequally applied justice: Column - Recall Judge Aaron Persky

In America, unequally applied justice: Column

The outrage over the controversial sentence handed down to Brock Turner, the former Stanford student convicted on three felony counts of sexual assault, was reignited last week as Turner was released after serving three months of a six-month jail sentence.

Judge Aaron Persky’s objectivity and acumen were called into question around the country. The Santa Clara County district attorney’s office had questions as well, and removed Persky from presiding over a second sexual assault case, citing lack of confidence in his impartiality. Persky later requested to be transferred to the civil division. The move away from criminal cases was slated to happen Sept. 6. Persky’s sentence reflected society’s deep and enduring misunderstanding of sexual violence, biases, the impact of alcohol and the meaning of consent.

The Turner case and others like it demand that we do more to meet the needs of victims and hold perpetrators accountable. Alcohol has routinely been scapegoated as the cause for acts of violence and degradation. Perpetrators employ intoxication as a defense for crimes of violence. But for victims, evidence of alcohol consumption is an indictment. Time and time again we hear: She was drunk, what did she expect? Persky’s leniency toward the intoxicated defendant is mundane only in its ubiquity. But for the victim’s courageous eloquent letter and BuzzFeed’s digital engine that propelled this case into the hearts and minds of millions of people, her voice might have faded away like thousands of other victims of sexual violence.

Not an isolated incident

Persky’s lenient sentence and underlying bias, while reprehensible, is by no means unique. In a similar case just last month, a Massachusetts judge came under fire for sentencing David Becker, 18, to just two years of probation after the student was charged with rape and assault and battery. He was accused of assaulting two females who had fallen asleep after a party. The continuance allows Becker to serve his sentence in another state and avoid registering as a sex offender. Yet another fundamental failure on behalf of victims.

There are gender and racial biases throughout the criminal justice system, from racial disparities in arrest rates to police violence against women, particularly perpetrated against women of color. Unfortunately, the notion that justice is blind — that judges, law enforcement and prosecutors are immune to implicit prejudices — is aspirational, but an artifice.

A 2014 report from The White House Council on Women and Girls notes that when it comes to cases of rape and sexual assault, “arrest rates are low and meritorious cases are still being dropped — many times because law enforcement officers and prosecutors are not fully trained on the nature of these crimes or how best to investigate and prosecute them.” We must examine failures within the criminal justice system. Victims of crime deserve more, and the surest path to system reform is through well-designed, continuing education, starting with judges, that challenges deep-seated and insidious bias and inequity.

Implicit bias throughout justice system hurts women, minorities

Judges require ongoing, peer-to-peer education on gender-based violence. They are only as effective as the information they receive and the degree to which the information comes from a coordinated community response. Judges are in the unique position to ignite change in their communities.

A coordinated community response means that all the system players would have continuing education, cross communication and routine examination of processes and practices to ensure justice for all victims. Perhaps in this kind of system, the probation department in the Stanford case would not have recommended such a lenient sentence, and the victim would have learned of the circumstances of her violent assault from a law enforcement advocate, rather than reading about it in the newspaper.

Judges exert tremendous influence over the entire system, and can help actualize these improvements.

In the areas of domestic violence and sexual assault, the reservoir of information that judges have to draw upon to make their decisions is often quite shallow. Ongoing education in these areas allows judges to better understand complex cases. Most profoundly, ongoing education gives judges an opportunity to examine the lenses through which they view cases, and assess and confront their own biases.

The challenge of implicit biases is important in a criminal justice system in which defendants of color are routinely given harsher punishments than white defendants, poor defendants are seen as less deserving of the benefit of discretion than wealthy ones, and in which women who dare to report rape are interrogated as if they are to blame for the violence perpetrated against them. Without a concerted effort to challenge biases and attain the education needed to do so, our criminal justice system will continue to be unjust and unresponsive to the needs of victims of sexual violence and other crimes.

It’s imperative that we ensure that all judges and other players in the criminal justice system access the education they need to make thoughtful, fair decisions and arrive at true justice for all.

Original article posted by USA Today
By Esta Soler
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