New CA Legislation Would Impose Mandatory Sentence for Sexual Assaults

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June 27, 2016; NBC News

In the aftermath of the shockingly short sentence given to convicted rapist Brock Turner, last week California legislators introduced Assembly Bill 2888, which proposes a three-year minimum sentence for this and similar crimes. The bill was introduced by Democratic Assemblymen Evan Low and Bill Todd, and co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jerry Hill. The bill is supported by Santa Clarita County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, whose office prosecuted the Turner case.

Regarding the impetus behind the bill, Rosen said, “We need to change the law to protect the next Emily Doe from the next Brock Turner. Let’s give the next campus sexual assault victim no reason to fear that her attacker will end up walking around free after spending less time in jail than it takes to finish a single college semester.”

In March, Brock Turner was convicted of “intent to commit rape of an intoxicated/unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person and penetration of an unconscious person.” Turner, a 20-year-old Stanford University swimmer, was given only a six-month prison sentence and three years of parole by the judge in the case, Judge Aaron Persky. With good behavior, Turner could be out of prison in three months. Following an online petition to recall Persky signed by 1.2 million people (an effort opposed by DA Rosen), Persky was removed from hearing another sexual assault case. According to the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys’ president and CEO, David LaBahn, in California, prosecutors or defense attorneys can remove a judge from cases repeatedly if they choose to.

LaBahn also said in an interview with CNN that while the judgment in this case may seem outrageous to the public, according to California law, “Judges are allowed wide discretion.” This is where Assembly Bill 2888 hopes to make a difference.

There is some debate, however, as to whether this legislation will help. Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice, a nonprofit that helps survivors of sexual assault with criminal justice proceedings, said, “You may set mandatory minimums, but you’re forgetting that there’s prosecutorial discretion, police discretion before it even gets to a jury decision.” Further, she indicates a loophole that prosecutors could use the minimum sentence to seek a plea for a lesser charge.

Dunn goes on to say, “As much as a mandatory minimum sounds great to the general public, we know from research that unfortunately, it may mean the system just becomes less effective of bringing those types of charges to avoid having to abide by minimums.”

When looking at both sides of the issue, the proposed legislation seems to be a step in the right direction but may not be the answer. What is clear is that this case has sparked public and legislative action. This momentum needs to be captured to ensure that officers and lawyers are trained in handling sexual assault cases and understand the serious nature of the crime. Most importantly, where judges and prosecutors are elected, the public needs to actively participate.—Sheela Nimishakavi