Stanford sexual assault case shows differences in U.S., Canadian, courts

The issue of sexually violent crime is once again in the public consciousness after a former Stanford University swimmer received a six-month sentence for sexually assaulting a 22-year-old woman.

Average sexual assault case lasted 300 days in Ontario in 2015

Brock Turner was convicted of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated victim and two charges of digitally penetrating an unconscious and intoxicated victim. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group/AP)

The issue of sexually violent crime is once again in the public consciousness after a former Stanford University swimmer received a six-month sentence for sexually assaulting a 23-year-old woman.  

Brock Turner, 20, was arrested in Paolo Alto, Calif. in January 2015 after two men saw him "thrusting" on top of a motionless woman. In March 2016, he was found guilty of three felony sexual assault charges and sentenced to six months jail and three years probation.

The sentence set off a firestorm, with critics decrying the punishment as a "slap on the wrist" considering he could have faced 14 years in jail. 

How would that sentence compare to a similar conviction in Canada? And how is the University of Windsor looking at addressing sexual violence at its campus?  

According to a Windsor, Ont. social worker, six months in jail for sexual assault would be considered a harsh sentence in the Canadian justice system.

"We see a lot of house arrest," Carol Branget, a social worker with the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre told CBC News. "We see probation. A lot [of prison terms are] under two years. [People convicted of sexual assault] don't go to the federal penitentiary."

Sexual assault cases take time

An average sexual assault case takes nearly a year to wind its way through the court system in Windsor, the Ontario Court of Justice reports. In 2015, an average sexual assault case lasted 300 days, making those cases some of the longest to complete.

Out of 58 sexual assault cases in 2015, 10 people pleaded guilty, 21 cases were withdrawn and 25 went to trial, the Ontario Court of Justice says. The court did not tell CBC News how many of the contested cases ended with an acquittal or conviction.

Carol Branget is a social worker working at the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre. She says most sexual assault convictions in Canada do not result in long jail terms. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

Many cases do not go to trial because of plea bargains, Branget explained. Though the plea bargaining process often takes two years to complete, Branget said plea bargains save victims the experience of going through a trial and guarantees some type of guilty plea and sentence — something that is not easy at trial.

A long prison term is rare in the Canadian justice system, Branget said, pointing to sexual assault cases involving Catholic priests as an exception.

"Where multiple victims come forward, then we might see much longer, 10-year plus sentences. Maybe when there's been a physical assault or a use of a weapon we might see longer sentences," Branget said. "But typically we'll see sentences under two years."  

The sexual assault case in California also raised questions about sexual violence on university campuses.

At the University of Windsor, two sexual assaults have been reported since January 2015. There were four reported sexual assaults in 2014. The university implemented a draft sexual assault policy earlier this year.

"There is progress, but there is still a ton left to do," said Farrah El-Hajj, a student who helped draft the policy. "It's not [the place] to stop.It's nowhere near close to being perfect and there are still a lot of things that need to be addressed."

Farrah El-Hajj says she sees progress at the University of Windsor, but more needs to be done. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

One definite bright spot for El-Hajj is the bystanders program. It encourages students to step in when they see sexual assault or harassment happening on campus. One group trying to help the effort succeed is the Lancers football program.

Offensive lineman Randy Beardy is a spokesman for the program, and head coach Joe D'Amore is encouraging his players to get involved.

'It doesn't have to be life-ruining' 

Though D'Amore is hired to win football games, he said that's only one part of his job as coach He said the main part of his job is getting his players ready to enter the real world and become invested in their community.

"It's important we get rid of the stigma of being the bad guys, or bullies on campus," D'Amore said. "We want to go out and support other programs and other initiatives that we think are important to us, especially when it comes to violence against women."

Even with prevention efforts, sexual assault is a traumatic, life-altering experience for victims. Branget said it's about having control taken away. Part of her job is to help survivors feel they can take back control of their lives.

"[Sexual assault] is going to be life changing," she said. "But it doesn't have to be life ruining."