Stanford, Compassion, Retribution, and Justice…Are they Compatible?

I began my legal career as an assistant public defender.  It was my job to represent those accused of criminal violations of the law and to advocate for the best possible outcome to their cases. My job required that I look beyond the simple facts of a defendant’s case and see the whole human-being who I was representing. I enjoyed this job and it’s my nature to want to stand with the accused, with the outcast, to make their case, and plead their cause.

It’s from this perspective that I’ve observed the media coverage and seemingly endless parade of Facebook postings regarding the 20-year-old Stanford student and the 6-month sentence he received following his conviction for sexual assault against an intoxicated young woman.  I’ve watched as a virtual vigilante mob has expressed its upset at what many feel is a ridiculously inadequate sentence.  I’ve read media reports of the virtual vigilantes have going after the judge, the young man’s father, and even a musician who is a childhood friend who wrote a letter of support of the young man to the court.  I’m left wondering how much is enough and where does this blood lust come from?

prison - guard towerThe United States currently has the largest prison population in the world.  Our Courts hand down some of the most severe sentences in the world.  We routinely impose sentences that would be unlawful in much of the world.  Despite this, we have both citizens and politicians calling for more severe sentences for law breakers.  I think we’ve lived with the idea that retribution is justice for so long that we don’t even question it any more.

Unfortunately, our approach to justice and fighting crime is remarkably unsuccessful and comes at a great human and financial cost. Sending people to prison for long periods of time fails much more often than it succeeds.  In the State of Florida where I live, 65% of inmates released will return to prison within 5 years. Compare this with Norway’s recidivism rate of 20% and where the national incarceration rate is only 1/10th of the United States and its prisons are luxury resorts compared to ours.

I’ve tried to research the specific facts of the Stanford Rape case online, but I haven’t been able to get obtain many details about what exactly happened here.  I suspect that many of the journalists writing op-ed pieces and folks posting online don’t know any more than I do.  I know, from my experience with media reports on cases I’ve been involved in, that what the press reports and what actually happened are often two different stories and media reports often leave out very important details for the sake of sensationalizing a story.

The information I have been able to obtain is almost formulaic to anyone who has ever represented clients in a sexual assault cases in a college town.  Two young people, both are heavily intoxicated, sexual activity happens, memories are impaired after the fact, one party claims it wasn’t consensual.  The physical evidence supports that everyone involved was voluntarily intoxicated and that sexual activity of some sort occurred. The sole issue of dispute is consent.  It is a scenario that repeats itself time and time again on our college campuses and in the lives of young people whose minds and bodies are impaired by hormones and alcohol.

Unlike many I am not disturbed by the six-month sentence imposed by the Judge in this case.  Compassion and justice are not disparate and incompatible concepts.  Our criminal justice system desperately needs more compassion and to stop defining people solely by their greatest mistakes.  I recall the words of Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest and most successful gang intervention program in the world: “You are so much more than the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

There is good support for a lesser sentence in this case beyond simply the fact that Brock Turner comes from a privileged background and is a white male defendant.  He has no prior history of law violations or aggression, he is very young, he has paid dearly in many other areas of his life, he will carry the stigma of a criminal conviction for the rest of his life, and he has expressed remorse.  I also think that his statement regarding the impact of college party culture is an important message that we should be not be ignoring. Even if I concede the point that many raise that had this been a less privileged defendant that the sentence imposed might have been much more severe, that’s not a justification to me because our Courts routinely impose unnecessarily long and severe sentences.  The solution isn’t to make sure everyone is sentenced unfairly, but create fair, just, and compassionate sentencing for all.  As a society we have to expand our concept of justice beyond retribution and we have to be willing to take the time to understand why these things are happening.  Justice is not served by declaring a remorseful 20-year old with no prior legal history to be the face of evil.

Drunken after partyI see many people online making statements to what they refer to as “rape culture”.  I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to adopting new buzz words for social problems, but I do think we have a severe problem on our college campuses.  Consider that we’re sending our young people to college, often without any real sex education due to the obstructionism of religious fundamentalists who have hijacked many local school boards.  I suspect that many young men, and probably quite a few young women, on our college campuses these days obtain their sexual education from the internet and the many pornographic websites. We’re also sending them into an environment where alcohol often flows like water, especially at schools with strong athletic programs which often receive large sponsorships from alcohol producers.  It’s a recipe for a disaster that keeps happening over and over again.

If we want to create a safe and healthy environment on our college campuses and in the larger world, long prison sentences are not the solution.  Education and candid conversations geared towards understanding and prevention are.  Our conversations with our young people have to be more than simply saying “Just say no” when it comes to sex, drugs, and alcohol.  Our colleges and universities need to quit co-opting and promoting the party culture associated with college sports in order to make money.  What message does it send about adulthood when our underage college students see large crowds of intoxicated 40 and 50 year olds during the Tallahassee Downtown Get-Down street party they hold before all Florida State home football games?

Justice has to be more than retribution.  Good people sometimes make terrible mistakes and do great harm to others.  Retribution doesn’t help them make better choices and often leaves them angry and broken.  Having compassion for a defendant doesn’t mean that one condones the wrong-doing or disrespect the victim. Looking at the larger forces and the context in which people make bad choices allows us to effectively prevent future tragedies, which in the end is really where justice exists.