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Legal experts examine connections between sexual assault and mass incarceration

February 06, 2017

By Maria Biery C’18

On February 1, Penn Law hosted a panel discussion titled “Double Standards: Mass Incarceration, Sexual Assault, and the Brock Turner Case.” Georgetown Law professor and criminal defense attorney Abbe Smith, Penn Law professor Dorothy Roberts, Executive Director of Restorative Encounters Barbie Fischer, and Attorney Advisor at AEquitas Vikki Kristiansson participated in the event to discuss how sexual assault cases and the problems associated with mass incarceration coincide.

The case of former Stanford student Brock Turner, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman and sentenced to six months in jail, was referenced as an example of this connection throughout the discussion.

Kristiansson started with the topic of rape and the biases and misconceptions associated with the term. She stated that, as a society, many of us don’t know what rape is. “We are all brought up thinking that rape, still, is a stranger grabbing a stranger violently off of a street corner, bringing that person into a dark alley, beating up that person, and very, very violently raping that person,” said Kristiansson.  

However, she has seen that most rape usually happens between people who are not strangers, and, since this does not conform to most people’s definition of rape, victims are met with scrutiny that results in legal challenges.

Professor Abbe Smith went on to look at the case of Brock Turner. To her, the sentence of six months in county jail was appropriate, given the circumstances. She stated that the judge in the case — a fact, she remarked, that people have often overlooked — “was being respectful of the victim’s wishes in crafting a sentence,” since the victim stated that she did not want Turner to “rot in jail.” Turner, she continued, expressed remorse for his actions, there was no evidence suggesting he would commit an act of sexual assault again, and, therefore, his sentence was fair.

Professor Roberts, then, segued into the topic of mass incarceration. “I think we live in a state where imprisonment is the solution for problems that arise from social inequality in our country,” she stated. The role of racism shapes who feels entitled to sexually assaulting another, according to Roberts, and, in connection, “racism and sexism within rape law is related to the other problem of mass incarceration.”

Roberts stated that, “It is important while we work to reform views about sexual assault, that we also work against mass incarceration.”

Barbie Fischer closed with a discussion on her work in restorative justice. To counter some of the misconceptions surrounding the term, Fischer explained that, “Restorative justice is a framework, a philosophy. It is not a one-size-fits-all thing, and it is not soft on crime.”

Fischer stated that she feels the criminal justice system is set up so that offenders don’t have to face what they did, and they get to hide from it.

She does not discount that the criminal system has to exist, but she does not think that one can find support in the system. She believes the best way to fix this is for lawyers to be trauma-informed, and there should be defense-initiated victim outreach, plea bargains, and sexual deviant evaluations. Fischer also stated that lawyers should respect victim advocates, as they best understand the needs of the victim.