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Crime and Punishment
Even Vox Thinks the Brock Turner Backlash Is Out of Control

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.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Oh, please. The outrage here is regarding an outrageously lenient sentence by a Stanford Alum for a serious crime committed by a Stanford swim team member. Muddying the water with “the (admirable) liberal goal of reducing over-incarceration and unfairness the criminal justice system.” doesn’t add to the discussion. This was a miscarriage of justice, pure and simple. We can debate what should be done, but let’s be clear about what happened here. Are we supposed to accept the opinion expressed by this degenerate’s equally degenerate father (the apple it appears, doesn’t fall far from the tree) that the punishment should not fit the crime but rather its duration.

    • Matt_Thullen

      Did you read the essay? I’ll just note that passing more punitive laws will not punish Turner any further. Recalling the judge will likely make judges throughout the country err on the side of tough sentences. Both are just fairly destructive forms of virtue signalling by people who want it to be known that they themselves are outraged by the light sentence.

      I’ll also add that one of the biggest obstacles to political discourse in the western world is the tendency to deliberately mischaracterize an opponent’s argument and then express outrage at the now-mischaracterized argument. This post is a perfect example of that, in that the whole point of the article is about “what should be done”.

      • Andrew Allison

        Of course I read the essay. Did you read my comment? Since you seem to have a reading comprehension deficiency, permit me to elucidate: I did not propose any action, simply that we view the issue for what it is.

      • LarryD

        Federal minimum sentencing laws were passed by Congress due to outrage over federal judge light sentencing practices. The public still doesn’t buy general leniency.

    • rheddles

      For one of the few times in a decade (excluding snowstorms) I wish I were back in Palo Alto to make this Indian pay.

      • Andrew Allison

        Unhappily, the sentient of us still living in the Socialist Republic of California recognize that we are between the rock of Governor Moonbeam and the hard place of elitism — but I repeat myself.

        • mgoodfel

          Or perhaps we could tell people not to drink themselves stupid? This would never have happened if either of them had been remotely sober. We got Californians to cut back on their smoking. How about we make drunkenness unfashionable too?

          • PierrePendre

            Perhaps try prohibition. Oh, wait….

          • mgoodfel

            We didn’t have to ban cigarettes to get people to cut back. It just became regarded as a low-class habit.

          • Boritz

            The difference is that while smoking is bad for your health drinking makes you smarter, better looking and in large doses bulletproof.

  • PierrePendre

    There seems to be an ocean of blind and deaf rage swilling around America constantly looking for a shore to wash up on and overwhelm with its righteous indignation. The Turner sentence was inappropriate to the seriousness of the offence but the reaction is not a rational consideration of the efficiency of the system but hysteria. It has always been known that hard cases make bad law. Judges make dubious calls all the time (as do juries and dishonest prosecutors). Most jurisdictions appoint their judges which protects them and the principle of the independence of the judiciary from populist wrath. America elects some judges which means their errors can potentially put the entire system at the mercy of the ocean of rage. Voters have the right to recall or to refuse to re-elect judge Persky. But it would be inane, and I use the word provocatively, to legislate in the grip of political and ideological emotion in the prospective hope of preventing future Perskys. I can’t help suspecting that the clearcut Turner case has been a godsend to the Left in support of its invented claim of an epidemic of campus rape and in the wake of the Nifong, Sulkowic and Jackie/UVA disasters. Apropos, if the proposed new mandatory minimum sentences don’t do the trick, will the ocean of rage go after juries next?

    • RedWell

      Whew. I’m glad their ocean of rage is worse than ours.

  • RedWell

    Peripheral but true story: I read VM and Vox every day. One is embarrassingly liberal, the other embarrassingly conservative. It’s a balanced diet, though. A diet, I am afraid, few share.

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