Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Brock Turner Problem

Recently I've seen stories about how there are armed protesters in Brock Turner's neighborhood. They seem to be there with the intent of intimidating him, of making sure he knows that the public has not forgotten what he's done. Which seems fine on the surface, since neither he nor the public should forget. However, the presence of prominently displayed weaponry in the protests is chilling. And the way people seem to be sharing the story with such glee is even more chilling. Here's why:


Obviously, I'm definitely not going to excuse Brock Turner for his crime. He was caught raping an unconscious woman. He was convicted. What he did was horrible, and he deserved his conviction.

But, here's the thing: he was convicted. He went through the legal system, and he came out the other side. Yes, his sentence was ridiculously short. Yes, the fact that was released after only serving half of an already ridiculously short sentence is disgusting. This is a problem.

But, where is the core of that problem?

It seems to me that the armed protesters outside of Turner's house have severely misplaced their anger. Brock Turner is only the symptom of a deeper problem. Again, he shouldn't be allowed to forget, but other than the societal cost he'll be paying for probably the rest of his life, legally Brock Turner's story is over. He won't be serving more time, and he won't be convicted of that same crime again. Justice wasn't done, but that's not Brock Turner's fault.


First, I recommend redirecting your anger toward the criminal justice system. It failed to treat Brock's crime with the gravity it deserved.

The problems with our criminal justice system are far wider than Brock Turner, of course, but it's all interconnected. Basically, the whole thing needs an overhaul. Enforcement and sentences are wildly disproportionate to the impact of crimes in relation to one another. For instance, I'm personally of the opinion that dealing drugs, while by no means a good act, is certainly less severe than rape. However, convicted drug dealers face a minimum of 3-5 years, while Brock Turner managed to get out in 3 months.

And then, of course, there's the uneven conviction and sentencing rate based on other factors. Brock Turner was, of course, caught dead to rights, but he's white, well-off, and educated. If a poor, black man is convicted of raping a white girl, the punishment would be much more severe, even with flimsier evidence. Again, it's not Brock's fault that he's white, it's the system's fault for taking his race into account, de facto or otherwise.

Of course, fixing a problem this broad would not be easy. Protesters would have to shift their attention to lawmakers, and lawmakers are much more experienced at ignoring protesters than your average white rapist. The pressure would have to be much more sustained, and the protests wouldn't be able to focus on a single person since lawmakers are legion. Plus, there are multiple levels to the criminal justice system: state and federal, at least. Making a more cohesive system regarding sentencing for drug and rape convictions would involve effort at both levels, since drug laws are largely federal, while rape laws are largely at the state level.

Real change isn't easy, but it can happen. Just because it's difficult, doesn't mean it isn't worth doing.


Our prison system is another candidate more worthy of our collective anger than Brock Turner.

The judge in the Turner case justified his minor sentence by saying that a longer sentence would only serve to damage Turner's life. Which is true, of course, but generally that has been the entire point of our prison system: if you break the law, your life will be damaged. You will be punished. There will be repercussions for breaking the law.
This begs another question, though: what is the purpose of prison? What should it be? It's a very existential question for the system itself. Classically, the criminal justice system has been primarily punitive: if you commit a crime, you do time in jail. Or, if the crime is severe enough, you get executed.

However, the effects of this entirely punitive system appear to be largely inefficient and counter-productive. Threats of longer sentences do not seem to significantly deter criminal activity, and instead they seem to mostly increase incarceration costs to house, feed, and secure all of our inmates. And when criminals finish serving their sentences, they exit the system with no additional skills, no useful experience, and a stain on their record, all of which basically means that they will be unable to find gainful employment. Which in turn means that criminal activity may seem like the only viable course of action for them to survive when they get out. In short, our criminal justice system all but ensures that criminals stay criminals.

The alternative, of course, is to figure out a way to make prison time productive and educational for those prisoners susceptible to that sort of treatment. And, in fact, there have been many efforts toward that end. However, it seems that many people object to the idea of prison enriching the lives of criminals in any way; after all, prison is supposed to be punishment.

So, we arrive at the central question: do we want our criminal justice system to reduce crime, or do we want it to serve our collective revenge on people who break the law? To punish, or to rehabilitate?

I personally think the rehabilitation method covers both. It seems like enough of a punishment to be removed from society and forced into an educational system, though the obvious objection is that many people pay good money to basically do exactly that, and here these criminals would be getting that for free. Which leads us to the benefits of free public college (or, at least, free vocational training), but I think we've gone deep enough into this rabbit hole.

In any case, fixing our prison system is another problem we would need to bring to our lawmakers. So, again, a difficult proposition, but one worth working toward, especially if we'd like to avoid having people take the law into their own hands and erode the rule of law.


This Brock Turner problem is far deeper and more complex than a man getting a light sentence for a heinous crime. Which, I suppose, is why protesting outside of Brock's house (or, in most people's case, gleefully spreading the story about people protesting outside of Brock's house) just seems like the easier solution. However, I'd argue that it's not a solution. And, more than that, it could lead to another, worse problem.

Some of the signs in the protest outside of Brock's house suggest that, if Brock were to rape again, some of these people would take the law into their own hands. This is the part that really chills me.

It's true, the rule of law has let us down in this case. However, we can not allow this incident to shake our faith in the rule of law as a whole. If Brock Turner rapes again, it should be the criminal justice system that handles it, not a lynch mob.

I can't overstate the importance of the rule of law. As frustrating as it can be sometimes, we must always remember that the alternative is much, much worse: the alternative that might makes right. If you want to know what it looks like when the people collectively decide to take the law into their own hands, just look at Syria today, where the rule of law has largely broken down.

I don't think the rule of law is really so fragile that the actions of a few overzealous vigilante-types outside of a white dude's house can really bring the whole thing down. Still, celebrating their actions brings us a step closer to mentally accepting anarchy, so I can't condone it.

I should note here, though, that faith in the rule of law is not a one-way street. The citizens should maintain their faith as much as they can, of course, but it's also up to the government to give people as few reasons as possible to doubt that faith. To some, the release of Brock Turner was a blow to that faith. It's up tot he government to recognize and correct that problem in order to restore faith in the future.


Given all of that, here's a short list of things I recommend over protesting at Brock Turner's house:
  • Pressure state and federal lawmakers to create a more consistent criminal justice system.
  • Pressure lawmakers to reform prisons to become more effective at reducing crime rather than simply punishing criminals.
  • Speak out in support of rape survivors and help to change this culture in which sexual assault is commonplace, where boys feel pressure to get laid, where girls are told it's their fault if they get raped based on what they wear or drink, and where a white man doing this crime gets him a few months in prison while a black man doing the same crime would have put him away for a decade if he managed to survive long enough to go to trial.

Change the culture, change the law. It's not as immediately gratifying as waving a gun in the face of a rapist, but I guarantee it will be more effective and gratifying in the long run.

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