California passed a new law last week that expands the legal definition of rape and mandates prison time for those convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious victim.
The bill, signed Friday by Gov. Jerry Brown, came in reaction to the short jail sentence imposed on Brock Turner, the former Stanford University swimmer who sexually assaulted a woman by a dumpster after a campus party.
The victim’s gut-wrenching statement about how the trial forced her to re-live the attack went viral and prompted national outrage over what activists called a lenient penalty. That anger was also directed at the man who sentenced Turner, Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky, who now faces a recall effort.
Assemblyman Evan Low (D-San Jose) spearheaded the legislation, titled AB 2888, with Assemblyman Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo). Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen praised the bill.
“The national awakening about campus sexual assaults started by Emily Doe’s powerful letter continues to grow, changing our minds and our laws,” Rosen said. “While prisons are not appropriate for every person convicted of a crime, rapists belong in prison.”
Critics of the policy call it a step backward for hard-fought criminal justice reforms to undo tough-on-crime laws that led to illegal overcrowding in California jails and prisons.
AB 2888 prevents judges from granting probation for a number of sex crimes, including sexually penetrating an intoxicated or unconscious person. Under the new law, those crimes would require at least a three-year prison sentence. Attempted rape would mandate two years in state prison.
In Turner’s case, prosecutors asked for a six-year prison term. But Persky hewed to a recommendation for a shorter jail stay from the probation department, which provides jurists with ostensibly neutral sentencing guidelines calculated by an algorithmic risk assessment for sex offenders.
In the sentencing hearing, Persky said he considered Turner’s remorse, age, intoxication and lack of a criminal record in his decision. By law, all jurists have to weigh those variables. To see the checklist of considerations, read Turner’s sentencing packet.
Persky, however, was accused of going easy on Turner because he’s white, privileged and attended the same elite university the judge attended years ago. This new law will prevent all jurists from prescribing jail or probation for the same crimes.
Civil rights groups pointed out that California has a longstanding pattern of passing policy in response to high-profile cases. In a legislative session soon after the Turner case made global headlines, Mica Doctoroff, a legislative coordinator for the California American Civil Liberties Union, cautioned politicians about the unintended consequences of imposing harsher penalties.
“As we have learned again and again, mandatory-minimum sentencing is poor policy that disproportionately impacts communities of color,” Doctoroff said. “California already provides adequate sentencing scheme for the serious crimes addressed by the bill.”
In a statement after signing the bill, Gov. Brown said he’s generally opposed to mandatory-minimum law. But AB 2888, he said, would bring “a measure of parity to sentencing for criminal acts that are substantially similar.”
The law came days after he approved another policy that lifts the statewide statute of limitations for sex crimes. Legislators penned the measure after more than 50 women accused comedian Bill Cosby of drugging and raping them over the past three decades.
This article has been updated.