We have watching with concern as furious Californians move to implement sweeping changes to their legal system in the wake of the highly-publicized light sentence for Brock Turner, the 19-year old Stanford swimmer convicted of sexual assault earlier this year. Wealthy donors have raised money and gathered signatures to recall the judge who issued the sentence (at the advice of the Santa Clara County probation officer), and the state legislature moved quickly to enact new mandatory minimum sentences for sexual assault. We noted at the time that these crusades by California liberals seemed motivated more by rage than by reasoned deliberation, and that they seemed at odds with the (admirable) liberal goal of reducing over-incarceration and unfairness the criminal justice system.
The hip liberal website Vox has published a substantial body of reporting over the past several months fanning the flames of mob mentality in Santa Clara County. But it’s encouraging to see that the site’s editors also finally saw fit to publish a sensible article by a public defender putting the situation in perspective: “Get angry about Brock Turner’s crime. But don’t use it as a reason to pass bad laws.”
The author, Rachel Marshall, rightly notes that judicial recall elections have been shown to make judges more punitive in all kinds of cases, often with limited benefit to the public. “Judicial recalls are rare, so it isn’t hard to imagine how alarming the movement to oust Persky has been to other judges around the country,” she writes. “The takeaway message is clear: Be tough in sentencing or face public wrath.” She also notes that mandatory minimums have played a role in excessive incarceration, in California and elsewhere, and that vitiating judicial discretion will not make sentencing any fairer, but merely transfer power from judges to prosecutors.
Most of all, Marshall exhorts liberal readers against policymaking-by-outrage. It is almost always a mistake to make drastic policy changes on the basis of one high-profile media feeding-frenzy. White hot anger tends to drown out deliberation, and even tempt us to violate time-tested liberal norms. This principle clearly applies to the Brock Turner case, but it applies to many other domains of public policy as well. Read the whole thing.