In the last blog, I wrote about how Brock Turner's family, friends, and peers were his teachers and how their beliefs and attitudes taught him that aggressive and violent behavior towards women was acceptable. Also, I wrote about how Brock's interpersonal relationships taught us about our society and ourselves. Are there other teachers in Brock’s life or even our lives? Powerful institutions can have just as much influence over our beliefs and attitudes as our family and friends. Institutions teach too! So, have institutions erred like the people in Brock’s life erred. The criminal justice system, Stanford University, and USA Swimming are all examples of institutions in our communities that have a responsibility in how society sees sexual assault. These institutions through their actions tell us whether survivors are worthy of justice, believed, or even taken seriously. These institutions tell us whether we should take the word of a survivor over a star athlete and a "promising" young man.
One example of an institution that was involved in the Brock Turner case is the criminal legal system. Clearly, many have been challenged by this institution's response. It is important to say that we know the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults are not prosecuted. Also, large numbers of sexual assaults are never reported, or there is a delay in reporting. We live in a world where a rape kit backlog exists because justice is more often an ideal rather than a reality. Judge Aaron Persky, the judge in the Turner case is a Stanford alum. Also, it is known that Persky was a student athlete and played lacrosse during his time at Stanford. I am challenged that the judge is an alum of the university. As a Stanford alum, Judge Persky belongs to an institution that has a stake in the outcome, and that could impact his ability to be impartial. Is Justice supposed to be blind? The maximum sentence for Turner's crimes was fourteen years, and the prosecutors recommended six years? So, the judge in recommending a six-month sentence was the epitome of leniency. This punishment does not seem like justice; it seems like the good old boy system, where behaviors are excused and second chances are available for the right people. Persky explained the justification for his sentence by citing positive character references from Turner's dad, Turner's age, his lack of a criminal history and the “role that alcohol played in the assault.” I wrote about Brock's father in part one and my challenge with his dad's beliefs and attitudes. I am similarly challenged that Persky stated that alcohol was a "mitigating factor" in the assault. Judge Persky used victim behavior as a justification for Brock’s choices, and that is no different than Brock's friend writing "rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists." In other words, if the victim had not been unconscious, then Brock would not have committed his crime. That is problematic. Rape happens because of rapists, and a judge should know better. Alcohol is never an excuse for committing a crime. If I robbed a bank while intoxicated, then I am still responsible. If I drive a car while intoxicated and hurt someone, then I am still responsible. And, sexual assault should be treated the same as other crimes. One's use of alcohol is not a justification for hurting anyone. This belief is fallacious and why our society has so much work to do. This belief is the epitome of why some survivors struggle coming forward. With that said, something else is going on here. The criminal justice system believed Brock Turner because he was a clean cut kid, from the right family, that made good grades, went to an elite university, and was an All American. The judge even said, "I take him at his word that, subjectively, that’s his version of events.” There were similar statements from the probation officer around Brock's denial about using illicit substances that have been since disproven. That statement is an example of how race and class can affect the criminal legal process. Turner was seen as a kid that made a mistake rather than a criminal. This sentence was all about Brock getting the benefit of the doubt. Would Brock have been believed had he been brown? The victim posed a similar question during her victim impact statement by stating, "If a first-time offender from an underprivileged background was accused of three felonies and displayed no accountability for his actions other than drinking, what would his sentence be?” Those words are damning. They challenge the institution and our ideals about justice and fairness. In a case with startlingly similar circumstances to Turner's, Persky ordered a harsher sentence of three years with no possibility of probation for Raul Ramirez, a Latino man who pleaded guilty, expressed remorse, and did not go to Stanford. This is why Brock and the criminal justice response to him are both as American as apple pie. He is example of how our society treats males from privileged backgrounds and ignores their crimes as well as the hurt and pain they cause others.
Another example of an institution that had influence in regards to Brock’s crimes is Stanford University, who banned Brock from campus on January 20th, two days after his arrest. Here is an example of a powerful institution saying that they valued the safety of their female students over a "promising" young man. With that said, it could be argued that Stanford missed the mark as there had been reports involving a young woman who had been upset about Brock’s aggressive physical advances approximately a week before the incident he was arrested for. There had also been citations for alcohol violations in the months before the assault which is telling as alcohol is a tool men often use to take advantage of the vulnerable. Colleges and universities have historically struggled in responding to sexual assaults. The rise of Title IX complaints says that colleges and universities have typically turned a blind eye to sexual assaults because they did not want to adversely affect the lives of their male students. There are countless examples of colleges getting the response wrong. For example, at James Madison University two male seniors were "expelled after graduation" in 2014. The challenge is that Stanford’s reputation is on the line as no college or university wants to be known for rape. Seldom do sexual assaults on college campuses lead to criminal prosecutions. The response is better than it was, due to the work of courageous student activists and survivors in schools around the country who are fighting for their rights, but we still have ways to go. Survivor’s voices have been silenced, and excuses have been made because there was a desire not to ruin the lives of "promising" young men due to "misunderstandings". It is obvious those beliefs and attitudes are problematic because sexual assaults are about much more than the ruining the lives of "promising" young men. As the survivor in the Turner case eloquently said Turner wanted to "'show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life.' “Let me rephrase for you, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives. You and me. You are the cause, I am the effect… Your damage was concrete, stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today”.
Another example of an institution that had influence in regards to Brock Turner was USA Swimming. It is known that Turner was hoping to compete in the Olympics. On June 10, 2016. USA Swimming issued a statement saying, “Brock Turner is not a member of USA Swimming and, should he apply, he would not be eligible for membership… had he been a member, he would be subject to the USA Swimming Code of Conduct. USA Swimming strictly prohibits and has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, with firm Code of Conduct policies in place, and severe penalties, including a permanent ban of membership, for those who violate our Code of Conduct.” While this is a step in the right direction, I have a curiosity about USA Swimming's decision to wait until June. Brock was indicted in January 2015 and was convicted in March 2016. It could be argued that USA Swimming's lifetime ban is only in response to the public outcry.
Above all, the response to Brock Turner is an illustration of why we need more than a criminal justice response to prevent sexual assault. As a community, we can make a powerful statement when others get it wrong. We are all connected, and we can all work in our communities to end sexual violence.