Saturday, June 4, 2016

On Punishment

Brock Allen Turner is a good-looking star swimmer at Stanford. He has just been convicted of raping a woman behind a dumpster. He was sentenced to six months in a county jail, followed by probation and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. Considering the nature of the crime, this is a light sentence. I've heard people say that all rapists deserve a life sentence, equivalent to the life sentences to which they condemn their victims. I get the point, but the prosecutors wanted six years, which seems more appropriate.

There are two reasons we punish people. The first reason is to provide a deterrent to other possible criminals. The second reason is to satisfy the victim's need for justice and the citizenry's assurance that it lives in a just society. Turner's sentence fails to achieve the second goal. But I'm not sure if it fails the first.

I don't know what goes on in a rapist's head. This may put me in the minority of animals, but the idea of having sex with someone who doesn't want to have sex with me turns me off. And the idea of hurting someone in pursuit of sexual pleasure makes me physically ill. But if Turner was thinking at all logically when he went to that party in search of a girl to rape, and if he believed there was a high probability of being caught, my guess is that the exact punishment would not have been part of his metric. He is now stripped of his dreams of athletic success. He will serve a short amount of time in a county jail, which may seem like a light sentence, but would terrify me and probably someone of his privileged background as well. He will never be "someone who raped a girl when he was 19." He will be a "rapist." He will be a rapist six months from now. He will be a rapist when he is 25. He will be a rapist when he is 40. He will be a rapist when he is 90. It will be harder for him to get the job he wants. He may have a harder time finding meaningful relationships. He deserves all these punishments. In fact, he deserves much worse, but that's not my point. My point is that if we believe criminal justice should function as a deterrent, most punishments are far more severe than necessary.

But we want to serve the victim's sense of justice. And if the prosecution had succeeded and Turner had received six years in state prison, I would guess that most of us would feel that he had received the appropriate punishment. But again, I would say that such a punishment as written doesn't match the nature of his crime. In eye-for-an-eye justice, Turner deserves to be raped in approximately the same way he raped his victim. He deserves to be publicly humiliated for his rape, to feel terrible about his body for the rest of his life, and to live in fear. The only way to achieve true justice would be to send him to a prison where the likelihood of such a rape occurring is high, and some comments on social media suggest that there are those who want just that kind of punishment. But our society, nominally at least, is not barbaric. Maybe the judge thought that a 19-year-old rapist would likely be raped himself in a state prison and handed down his sentence accordingly.

So what do we really want? From the victim's powerful impact statement, and from any number of testimonies I have seen floating around online from rape victims and victims of child molestation, one theme keeps repeating. They don't need the perpetrators to be tortured. They don't need them to spend their lives in prison where any part of them that can at all be useful to society will be wasted. The most powerful parts of this victim's intense impact statement suggest that she wants her rapist to change his ways, to admit his wrongdoing to himself, to find a way to do good in his life. What the particular victim here and so many rape victims really need most are just a few simple words from their rapists: "I raped you. It happened. You did nothing to deserve this rape. I was wrong...I was evil."

We live in a culture which denies that such evil occurs. I will not comment on the actual numbers, because I don't know the actual numbers and there always seems to be a credible source which calls any particular number into question one way or another. Whatever. If you are raped in this country, there will be many people who will say that you were not raped. And in such a world, those five simple sentences would have provided more comfort to the victim than a lifetime in prison for her rapist.

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