California Closes Loophole That Allowed Brock Turner's Light Sentence

The law was inspired by the sexual assault case at Stanford University.

01/10/2016 5:26 AM AEST | Updated 01/10/2016 6:31 AM AEST

California is closing the loophole that allowed a judge to sentence former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to just six months in jail after being convicted of sexual assault. 

Assembly Bill 2888, which Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law Friday, will impose mandatory prison sentences for people convicted of raping or sexually assaulting someone who was unconscious, intoxicated or otherwise incapable of giving consent. Previously, the state only required prison time for rape or sexual assault by force. 

“As a general matter, I am opposed to adding more mandatory minimum sentences,” Brown said in a signing message. “Nevertheless, I am signing AB 2888, because I believe it brings a measure of parity to sentencing for criminal acts that are substantially similar.” 

Turner, then a Stanford freshman, was charged in January 2015 with raping an unconscious woman whose blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit. He was convicted a year later on three felony counts of sexual assault: intent to commit rape of an intoxicated and unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person and penetration of an unconscious person. Prosecutors recommended a six-year prison sentence. 

In June, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to just six months in jail and three years probation, arguing that six months was a fair punishment given Turner’s age and lack of prior convictions.

“A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” said Persky. “I think he will not be a danger to others.”

Persky also said he took Turner “at his word” when he claimed he was also drunk and “just couldn’t make the best decisions.” 

The sentence sparked national outrage, emphasizing the outsize role race and rape culture play in sexual assault cases. Persky’s leniency was underscored by an emotional letter Turner’s victim read at his sentencing recounting her side of the story and the severe impact the attack had on her life. 

“We should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error,” read the letter. “The consequences of sexual assault needs to be severe enough that people feel enough fear to exercise good judgment even if they are drunk, severe enough to be preventative.”

California’s new law would prevent judges from handing down similarly lenient sentences by extending automatic denial of probation to individuals who commit any penetrative sexual assault, not just those committed by force.

“Sexually assaulting an unconscious or intoxicated victim is a terrible crime and our laws need to reflect that. Letting felons convicted of such crimes get off with probation discourages other survivors from coming forward and sends the message that raping incapacitated victims is no big deal,” said Assemblymember Bill Dodd (D-Napa), one of the bill’s co-authors, after the legislation passed in the assembly. “This bill is about more than sentencing, it’s about supporting victims and changing the culture on our college campuses to help prevent future crimes.”

“Rape is rape, and rapists like Brock Turner shouldn’t be let off with a slap on the wrist,” said another co-author, Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Campbell). “Judge Persky’s ruling was unjustifiable and morally wrong, however, under current state law it was within his discretion. Current law actually incentivizes rapists to get their victims intoxicated before assaulting them. While we can’t go back and change what happened, we can make sure it never happens again.”  

Turner, who withdrew from Stanford but was not formally expelled by the university, was released after spending just three months in jail ― his sentence was cut in half due to “good behavior.” 

Persky, meanwhile, is fighting off a recall effort backed by more than 1.3 million online petitioners. According to the San Jose-based Mercury News, Persky has formed a campaign committee and is seeking support from other California judges in anticipation of the recall vote, which wouldn’t take place until next fall.

“I believe strongly in judicial independence,” he wrote on his campaign committee’s website. “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, not to appease politicians or ideologues.” 

Last year, Brown vetoed a bill that would have established mandatory minimum punishments for college sexual assault cases, arguing that establishing such punishments should be up to the schools, not the state. 

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