Sunday, June 12, 2016

Befitting the Crime

“Think of the value of a two-year prison sentence in terms of what this would communicate about our social norms,” [Michele] Dauber said. “No matter who you are, no matter how important you are as an athlete, or that you’re white, or that you go to Stanford, we make no exception for you [...].”
Adrienne LaFrance “What Makes the Stanford Rape Case So Unusual
Other people have echoed this sentiment, making the point that longer prison sentences communicate that we take the crimes of rape and sexual assault seriously. But that prompted me to think, who are we making that point to? I mean, the only reason that I’d ever heard of Brock Turner was that the victim’s statement went viral. Otherwise, it’s rare for rape cases to make national headlines, and so how often do we really hear about the sentences? My own understanding of the social norms around sexual assault is that being accused of a rape has pretty good chance of landing me in jail for a very long time, if not the rest of my life - whether I did it or not. And I will admit that there are times I organized my life around the idea that being suspected of a crime is very, very bad for me, and something to be avoided at all costs.

These two things are linked in that we rarely hear about the run-of-the-mill cases in which the justice system works more or less in line with our expectations - mainly, I think, because being unsuitable for sympathy and/or outrage mining, these stories are not deemed worth reporting. And so what makes the news are those cases in which a young man receives a six-month sentence for sexual assault because a judge wants to cut him a break or when a man is released from prison after serving part of a life sentence because it turns out that the confession was bogus or an eyewitness identification was flawed.

What occurred to me when people were making the argument that the light sentence in the Turner case sent a message about how much we valued the victims of sexual violence was that I had no real idea of what the standard sentence for rape was. It turns out that I vastly overestimated it - mainly because of the effect that I noted above. I’m accustomed to hearing about men being exonerated while serving long sentences - but it turns out that, for example, some of the members of the Central Park Five had already served more than the average sentence for rape cases before being exonerated.

So if we’re only hearing about the outliers - the cases where the outrage mill has ginned up in its never-ending search for attention - how will we ever understand what our broader social norms are, let alone what we intend them to be? If the cases in which there are no disparities, where justice truly is blind and the system works never make the headlines, who other than lawyers and legal junkies will ever know about them? In this, I think that all of us are flying blind. The legal system’s effectiveness as a deterrent is undermined by a lack of understanding of what punishments fit what crimes, and people are unwilling to trust it, because it only enters the picture when something goes wrong with it.

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