Why recalling the judge who sentenced Brock Turner may backfire

Aaron Persky was voted out after sentencing Brock Turner to six months in prison. Some victims' rights advocates say the fallout of the recall will be felt most sharply by those who are already marginalized.

Turner was sentenced to six months for sexually assaulting an unconscious person

Judge Aaron Persky, left, and Brock Turner, right, whom Persky sentenced to six months in jail for sexual assault. (Jeff Chiu/AP, Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office)
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On Tuesday, Californians voted to remove Justice Aaron Persky from the bench. The recall effort was in response to the widely-criticized six month sentence Persky handed down to Brock Turner, the Stanford University student and varsity swimmer who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman on campus in 2015.

Sejal Singh is the Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools. She's also a Harvard law student and is herself a survivor.

But instead of celebrating Persky's recall, the vote to remove him left Singh with concern.

"I, like many survivors, was really disturbed by Persky's decision and his opinion on Brock Turner," Singh tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"At the same time, I really worry that recall votes have the effect of increasing criminal sentences for the people who really do deserve judicial mercy."

Brock Turner, the former Stanford swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, leaves the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose, California, U.S. September 2, 2016. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Generally, as judges get closer to re-election, they tend to hand out harsher sentences to all defendants, but especially people of colour, says Singh.

"I worry that judges across California are going to see this recall and think the safe thing to do is to give harsh [and] punitive sentences, thus exacerbating the mass incarceration crisis that we have the United States."

Judge 'bent over backwards'

On Tuesday, Persky became the first judge to be recalled in California in more than 80 years.

Michele Dauber, a Stanford University professor, spearheaded the campaign to recall the judge after sitting through Persky's sentencing.

"The judge really bent over backwards in order to give this defendant a very light sentence," Dauber said in an interview with Democracy Now.

The case was thrust into public attention because the victim in the Turner case, known as Emily Doe, wrote a powerful victim impact statement.

Her statement was shared by millions online and read on television.

Michele Landis Dauber, a law professor at Stanford University, speaks to members of the media during a petition delivery calling for the removal of Judge Aaron Persky. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Dauber and other supporters of the recall campaign were outraged by the judge's concern for how a long prison sentence would affect Turner's future.

Singh believes Persky misused his discretion in the Turner case, but she says judicial discretion is still a good thing in the justice system.

"Poor kids of colour end up in the criminal legal system all the time for things like graffiti, or stealing small amounts, or for drug possession," Singh says.

"Judges have the ability to give people less than the maximum sentence when they believe that a defendant is better [off] in school or with their family."

Preventing racial disparity

While she understands why many are happy to see Persky go, Singh says that it's important to think about wider consequences of recall votes.

"We have to be really thoughtful [and make sure that] the ways that we try to fight gender-based violence don't inadvertently and unintentionally exacerbate the mass incarceration crisis that we have."

Survivors report that they drop cases because they feel that they are being personally blamed by police.- Sejal Singh

Singh also says focusing on sentencing in sexual assault cases misses a bigger issue, because the vast majority of sexual assault cases are neither prosecuted nor convicted.

"I think there's a lot of important interventions that we can make earlier in the process to make reporting to the police a less awful and re-traumatizing experience for survivors," she says.

"A lot of survivors report that they drop cases because they feel that they are being personally blamed by police and prosecutors for, say, drinking, or for what they were wearing."

Activists from UltraViolet, a national women's advocacy organization, hold up signs before delivering over one million signatures to the California Commission on Judicial Performance calling for the removal of Judge Aaron Persky from the bench at a rally in San Francisco on June 10, 2016. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Several states in the U.S. are also considering making civil lawsuits available for victims of sexual assault, something Singh says will offer survivors an additional option.

It is also possible, Singh says, to use the ability to recall elected judges to prevent racial disparity in sentencing. 

"I think it would be really interesting to see people who are trying to change the criminal justice system by trying to recall [judges] specifically on the basis of racially disparate sentencing." 


To hear the full interview with Sejal Singh, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.