As a community organizer who works with families whose loved ones are facing the criminal court system, Charisse Domingo has sat through many sentencing hearings in Santa Clara County — the same court system that housed Brock Turner’s trial and sentence. But unlike the Turner case, the outrage at the court system she has repeatedly witnessed was about how punitive sentences tore apart the lives of families of color. In her essay, she writes while she understands the impulse to recall Judge Persky as an effort to challenge white privilege in the courts, it will ironically only further increase incarceration rates in communities of color.
Like many people, I read Brock Turner’s victim’s statement with lumps in my throat. I teared up at the vivid descriptions of her painful experience. Every word was demanding. I wish I could turn back time for her – back to the Saturday night dinner she enjoyed with her family, pick up the remote and put on the show she was going to watch on tv, open the book to the page she probably dog-eared from the night before, return her to the last moment she remembered feeling safe. In this future going forward where their fates are forever linked, my hope for her is that one day, her thoughts allow her to float back to a carefree and peaceful place, free from his name.
I was angry and sad for her, and it didn’t help that the translucent, smiling graduation picture of Brock Turner would appear everytime I refreshed my Facebook feed, looking as smug as his daddy’s interpretation of history. And then the first option popped up that gave me a chance to express my solidarity for her – a petition to remove Judge Aaron Persky from the bench.
By the time I read it, it had been signed by over 300,000 individuals. Now it’s more than a million. I have no doubt that anger and a search for justice guided the keystrokes of many people who signed that petition. People I love and respect signed it, and called out the white privilege culture that nestles this case.
What’s concerning however about some of these efforts is that the idea of removing Judge Persky from the bench is being equated with the fight for racial justice and fairness — a strike against white privilege and a broken criminal justice system. But the reality is, despite the righteous place this instinct may come from, the end result will be only more of the weight of a racist criminal justice system placed down upon communities of color.
While I have no doubt that race played in Brock’s favor – whether it was unconscious or not — this equation that accountability can only be interpreted through longer sentences will lead to a tidal wave of legislation favoring mandatory minimums. These are sentences schemes take away judicial discretion and that will affect – not the Brock Turners of the world, or their fathers, or their swim team members, or their frat brothers. Rather, they’ll affect people of color, the majority Black and Brown people who sit in courtrooms facing charges, everyday awaiting their fate. We just need to look back at history to see how these “tough on crime”laws that impose mandatory minimums have the maximum impact on people of color. The Sentencing Project, for example, recently reported that African Americans are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than white defendants and are 20 percent more like to be sentenced to prison.
It already started – just weeks after the Turner decision — Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen held a press conference announcing a bill moving through the state legislature, AB 2888, that will give mandatory minimums for two of the offenses that Brock Turner was convicted of. He said, “Let’s give her (the victim) a legacy that will send the next Brock Turner to prison.”
As an organizer who works with families who have loved ones facing charges in the system to impact the outcomes of their cases, I already know who the alleged ‘next Brock Turner’ will be. The “next Brock Turner”, meaning the person facing a mandatory minimum sentence, won’t have a swimming scholarship, Olympic hopes, an elite college education, or an upper middle class family that they can land softly on. It’s going to look like the young Black or Brown child of a parent who’s going to walk into the doors at De-Bug asking for support. He’ll most likely be from a low-income neighborhood, and criminalized by police as gang affiliated. He’ll likely be juggling school and a minimum wage job, and struggling to support his family. Maybe he didn’t even do what the police are alleging he did. Either way, this will be a steeper, more uphill battle now more than ever. And if he was innocent, he knows the judge will have no discretion if he loses at trial, and thus will jump at the first offer the prosecutor offers.
We just have to look backwards in history to see that some of the most horrible criminal justice laws (like Three Strikes, Proposition 21, life without parole, trying youth as adults, mandatory minimums on drug offenses) disproportionately impacted people of color. These laws are extreme reactions that prey on the immediate, unnamed fears of the larger public.
Some of these laws, like Three Strikes, were conceived because of horrible singular incidents, like the Turner case, yet the ones who have borne the brunt of the acts of one person has been people of color. These are the moments when the narrative of crime is constructed and re-constructed by the social, economic, and political intersections of our time. When the ‘bad guy’ is reimagined and then locked away again, with the keys turned more tightly to the right and for a longer period of time. The problem is that even if the horrific incident involved a white defendant, the fall-out is still felt by people of color. Just visit any prison in California to see whose faces and bodies are behind the bars.
The problem with DA Rosen’s approach, or the recall effort of the Judge, is that they are perceived our only options to those of us who saw the outcome as not an expression of true justice for the victim. But true accountability and the justice system, as we know it, don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Rather then send the state back down the road of mandatory minimums, overcrowded prisons, and lengthy sentences, we need to create a whole new road.
Ironically, I think Judge Persky’s consideration of the ‘severe impact of incarceration’ shouldn’t just be evaluated on the individual, but on society. Incarceration, and how we conceive of it, is as much about the individual being locked up as it is about the lawmakers who designed it, the voters who vote for it, and the businesses that boomed around it. It’s impact on the individual, the victim, their families, and our communities should be a compass that determines policy moving forward.