SACRAMENTO, Calif. » Months after outrage over the six-month sentence for sexual assault given to former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, California Gov. Jerry Brown today broadened the power of judges to treat sex crimes as rape at sentencing and agreed that the crime’s punishment must include time in state prison.
The governor’s decision to sign the two bills, AB 701 and AB 2888, comes as heated debate raged this year over what’s been called the mishandling of sexual assault investigations on U.S. college campuses and by police agencies and courts. But strengthening punishment for sex offenders posed a challenge for Brown, as the state undertakes a broader effort to move away from a focus on prison sentences.
Brown released a message with the bill that provides mandatory minimum sentences for a broader range of sex crimes, saying he was generally opposed to such a proposal.
“Nevertheless, I am signing AB 2888, because I believe it brings a measure of parity to sentencing for criminal acts that are substantially similar,” he said.
The bills’ supporters lauded Brown’s approval, saying the harsher consequences for sex crimes help strengthen a criminal justice system that often fails and places blame on victims. At a news conference at the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office, state and local leaders said the bills’ passage was an example of government working.
“The national awakening about campus sexual assaults started by Emily Doe’s powerful letter continues to grow, changing our minds and our laws,” Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen said in remarks released later, referring to the victim-impact statement in the Turner case. “While prisons are not appropriate for every person convicted of a crime, rapists belong in prison.”
But some say the new laws will disproportionately affect poor and minority defendants who receive little or no legal representation.
Natasha Minsker, director of the ACLU of California Center for Advocacy and Policy, called the sentencing bill a well-intentioned measure but said it would only create more injustices within a flawed criminal justice system.
“Those who will bear the brunt of this law will be defendants whose parents can’t afford to hire the best attorneys money can buy, defendants who take plea deals for a lesser sentence even if they are innocent because they know judges won’t have any discretion during sentencing, and defendants who are mentally ill or who themselves suffered from severe sexual abuse,” Minsker said in a statement.
Political observers had questioned what action Brown would take. As governor in 1977, he signed into law a strict sentencing system. But he has since said he regrets those policies and has spoken out against implementing other tough-on-crime measures in recent years.
On Wednesday, Brown signed a bill by state Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat, that was filed in the wake of sexual assault allegations against comedian Bill Cosby, which removes the statutes of limitations for specified sex crimes. But he rejected another proposal this week that would have imposed minimum fines and mandatory-minimum county jail terms for people convicted of buying sex.
Debate is now likely to turn to the governor’s closely watched November ballot measure that would allow some inmates serving time for nonviolent crimes to more quickly become eligible for parole.
Both proposals signed Friday will go into effect Jan. 1. They were filed after Turner was sentenced to six months in jail and three months of probation for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. He was released after three months of incarceration.
The light punishment provoked outrage nationwide and sparked a campaign to recall Santa Clara Judge Aaron Persky, who presided over the case.
Assembly Bill 2888 will prohibit a judge from sentencing a convicted offender to probation in certain sex crimes such as rape, sodomy and forced oral copulation when the victim is unconscious or prevented from resisting by any intoxicating, anesthetic or controlled substance.
Assemblymen Evan Low and Bill Dodd both Democrats who coauthored the bill, have said the legislation closed a loophole in sentencing guidelines.
“This sends the strongest possible message that rape is rape, and in California, if you do the crime, you’re going to do the time,” Low said in a statement Friday. “Judge Persky’s ruling was unjustifiable and morally wrong, however under current state law it was within his discretion. While we can’t go back and change what happened, we have made sure it never happens again.”
Under current law, those convicted of rape using physical force must serve prison time. But offenders like Turner who are convicted of sexually assaulting someone who is unconscious or incapable of giving consent because they are intoxicated, can receive a lesser sentence based on a judge’s discretion.
The other bill, Assembly Bill 701 by Democratic Assemblywomen Cristina Garcia and Susan Talamantes Eggman, will expand the legal definition of rape so it includes all forms of nonconsensual sexual assault when a judge is deciding the sentence of a defendant and connecting victims with services.
Rape has previously been defined as “an act of sexual intercourse” under certain conditions of force, duress or lack of consent. Other types of sexual assault, such as penetration by a foreign object, were categorized as separate offenses.
Garcia said she was moved to file the bill when reading the statement written by the victim in the Turner case. The victim was not allowed to call the crimes committed against her “rape” under California’s laws.
“I wanted to make sure that one piece was righted,” Garcia said. “There is a lot of work we still have to do to end rape culture in our country. But calling rape what it is, is a great first step.”
In Santa Clara, Alaleh Kianerci, who prosecuted the Turner case, told reporters that when she asked Emily Doe if she would share her letter with the community, she did not know “it would be the world.”
©2016 Los Angeles Times