Protestor outside Brock Turner's house holds up a sign declaring, "If I Rape Brock Will I Only Do 3 Months"

Feminist Groups Are Right to Rally Against the Brock Turner-Inspired Crime Bill

Last week, California’s state senate presented bill AB-2888, which doles out mandatory prison sentences for “sex crimes,” in front of Governor Jerry Brown. The bill was presented in response to the 3-month sentence Brock Turner received for assaulting a student on Stanford’s campus, and would function as a “mandatory minimum” sentence for any person who assaults another person while they are intoxicated or unable to give consent. 

The discourse surrounding the bill suggests that mandatory sentences would cut through a judge’s imposed discretion, make the justice system take sexual assault more seriously, provide the recourse that sexual assault victims deserve, and would, indeed, have meant that Turner would still be serving a prison sentence right now, instead of being out on parole. But two days after the bill was dropped on Governor Brown’s desk, several feminist groups — led by Know Your IX — wrote a public letter urging the Governor to veto the bill. “[M]mandatory minimum-term laws,” the letter states, “are a harmful, mistaken solution to our rightful anger over the Brock Turner case and the many others like it.”

Know Your IX, and the coalition of feminist groups that are cosignatories, including several campus feminist and activist groups from Columbia, CUNY, Harvard, Yale, University of Wisconsin and the like, have the right idea. Pushing mandatory minimum sentences not only misfires in addressing rape culture and the national problem with prosecuting sex crimes and holding rapists accountable, but also actively facilitates the same racist and prejudiced criminal justice system that allowed such discrepancies in sentencing to occur in the first place.

As intersectional feminists, the root of our anger towards Brock Turner must come not just for his light sentence, but because such leniency was only shown towards him because he was White, went to an elite university, and did not look like the person a White supremacist carceral society envisions serving a long term prison sentence (i.e., a poor person of color). Here’s the thing with mandatory minimums: they were designed to prop up the exact same system that cut Turner loose, and put a vast swath of people of color in droves behind bars.

They will continue to be used in exactly that way. The link between mandatory minimums, mass incarceration, and race is well documented. They’ve not resulted in any significant decline in crime, and have exacerbated racial inequities in the system. This fact has been backed up by the ACLU; by the Federal Justice Center; by countless law review articles; and by the media.

What’s more is that California, for all its progressive politics, is notorious for incarcerating people in droves. The state saw a 500% increase in incarcerations between the 1970s and the 1990s, and uses harsh punishment policies such as three strikes laws, widely acknowledged as a bad, outdated, and racist idea. California’s racial disparities in criminal justice are also more pronounced than the national average — Black people in 2013 represented a staggering 29.4% of the state’s prison population, and are more likely to be incarcerated, and for longer, than White people in the State for the same offenses.

So you have a state that’s already bad on race and crime enacting laws that are documented to worsen the problems of racism and crime. Mandatory minimums put in place floors, not ceilings, on prison time and don’t even begin to address the complexities of investigating, charging, prosecuting, pleading, negotiating, and trying crimes in a racially-charged system that results in the Turners of the world serving three months for sexual assault, while the Wilkersons serve life for stealing a pair of socks.

Public defender Rachel Marshall has written on how moments of public panic and indignation precisely like this case have consistently been used to pass poorly-thought-through legislation just like sex offender registries or three strikes laws, which are then marshaled towards strengthening the racial inequities in our justice system. Justified anger towards Brock Turner, Marshall writes, is driving bad public policy, as laws similar to this one give prosecutors more power, act as powerful bargaining chips that can tie defendants’ hands and force them to accept unfavourable pleas, disproportionately burden poor people of color, and deprive judges of the very discretion that could save large masses of Californian teenagers of color from filling up the state’s prisons.

AB 2888 is a quintessential example of what Victoria Law has called “carceral feminism,” a neoliberal, statist feminism that props up and supports the state’s most violent functions, to the detriment of not just poor and working class men of color, but women as well. “Carceral feminism,” Law writes, “fails to address the myriad forms of violence faced by women, including police violence and mass incarceration. It fails to address factors that exacerbate abuse, such as male entitlement, economic inequality, the lack of safe and affordable housing, and the absence of other resources.” She adds that “criminalized responses pose further threats rather than promises of safety,” a statement written in reference to domestic abuse laws, but one that can easily be translated into mandatory minimum sentences for rape as well.

Writer JoAnn Wypijewski affirms, writing for The Nation, “It is the lust for prosecution, the clang of the prison door; and the liberal/progressive/feminist hand in enabling the police state and confusing punishment with justice.” Disabling that state is the imperative of our age, JoAnn writes. “And any invocation of freedom or human rights or bodily integrity that does not also recognize this is hypocrisy.”

It is imperative that public outrage over Turner not be misdirected and channeled into strengthening systems of privilege and power. While we are rightfully angry at Turner’s actions, calls to rape or castrate him (displayed in the cover photo) by the protesters outside his house or calls to increase punitive and penal policies in response to his case, conflate punishment and justice. They strengthen, rather than subvert, the culture in which rape and privilege and white supremacy fester.  We must all join Know Your IX and others in protest of the impending bill, and demand our criminal justice system do better than these knee-jerk and harmful solutions to the legitimate challenges we face today.

Header image via.


Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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