This week, the nation recoiled in shock after former Stanford University swimmer and convicted rapist Brock Turner was issued a six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a fraternity party in January of 2015. Two graduate students on bicycles saw Turner assaulting the woman and chased him down after he attempted to flee the scene, resulting in his arrest. San Jose’s Mercury News reports that the three crimes for which Turner was found guilty carry a maximum sentence of 14 years. A letter written by the victim and read at the sentencing describing the impact the assault has had on her has been viewed nearly 15 million times at BuzzFeed and elicited an open letter in reply yesterday from Vice President Joe Biden.
This victim’s horrifying story is just the latest in a too-long series of failures by the systems we have in place to deal with sexual assault on campus.
Just last week, Baylor University demoted President Kenneth Starr (who also resigned as the university’s chancellor) after a report issued by an outside law firm detailed the institution’s shocking mishandling of sexual assault cases involving athletes. And this past Monday, VICE published an article detailing how current Title IX enforcement efforts fail alleged victims, noting that because colleges and universities are empowered to adjudicate sexual assault charges, “[p]unishments are also at the discretion of the university”—a necessarily self-interested actor, with its own institutional reputation to protect.
As FIRE has consistently observed, the status quo here routinely fails everyone involved.
For years, we have called for the criminal justice system, not college tribunals, to investigate and adjudicate campus sexual assault cases—and we are far from alone in doing so. Colleges are well-equipped to provide students with preventive education, counseling, and academic and residential accommodations to maintain safety. But only the criminal justice system has the resources, expertise, and authority to fairly and effectively investigate allegations of criminality, hold a fair hearing, and mete out the appropriate punishment if the accused is found guilty.
FIRE is under no illusion that the criminal justice system is infallible, particularly with regard to sexual assault allegations. “If the criminal justice system has too often failed victims of sexual assault,” my colleague Joe Cohn wrote in The Washington Post last year, “then it should be reformed to ensure that allegations are promptly and effectively pursued.”
Turner’s six-month sentence has generated national outrage; as of this morning, a petition to remove the judge who sentenced Turner has attracted support from more than a million signatories. (In turn, the petition has generated strong criticism from Mark Joseph Stern and Scott Greenfield.) Many observers feel that the sentence hearkens back to a time when the evil of rape was not sufficiently recognized by society, and their faith in the ability of the criminal justice system to address campus sexual assault has been shaken. Ken White speaks for many when he writes that “Brock Turner’s escape from appropriate consequences” is a “grim reminder of the brokenness of the system.” But a single sentence by a single judge in an appalling case cannot change the fact that the criminal justice system is the best one we have for adjudicating allegations of criminal misconduct, and removing the guilty from society.
As the nation considers the lessons of this shocking case, it is important to remember that had the allegations against Turner been heard solely by the campus judiciary, the harshest penalty Stanford could have levied would have been expulsion, leaving him free to commit crimes elsewhere. If citizens feel justice has not been served in this instance, they should direct their attention to reforming the sole system empowered to properly try and sentence rapists.