Judge Aaron Persky Is Back In Court

On Thursday, an extremely controversial judge returned to the bench after a weeks-long hiatus, and as it turns out, the furor didn't die down much in his absence ― I'm talking about Aaron Persky, the judge who gave an infamously light jail sentence to convicted rapist Brock Turner in June (Turner received six months in jail, three years of probation, and will have to register as a sex offender). Judge Perksy was back in court for a sexual assault case this week, a fact that's added more fuel to the fire for his critics ― protesters and advocates for victims of sex crimes have been pushing for Persky's removal ever since the Turner sentencing.

Here's the situation: Persky presided over the case of an El Salvadorean immigrant named Raul Ramirez, who pleaded guilty to an sexual violation which, while different in some details, is pretty similar to Turner's ― both digitally penetrated women without consent, although in Turner's case the woman was unconscious at the time, while Ramirez's victim was awake. Also, Ramirez actually pleaded guilty, while Turner pleaded not guilty, and was subsequently convicted with the light sentence.

And yet, the amount of prison time Ramirez is slated to serve is a lot more than Turner ended up with ― six times more, in fact, three years compared to the former Stanford student's six months. When you look at those basic facts, it's undeniably glaring ― on the one hand, a privileged young white man fights his charge and gets (in terms of prison time, at least) a veritable slap on the wrist, while an immigrant commits a highly similar crime, actually admits to it by way of a guilty plea, and gets a far heavier punishment.

There are reasons for this, although they're not terribly satisfying to hear. First and foremost, for whatever inane reason, sexually assaulting an unconscious person is a less serious crime in the state of California than sexually assaulting an awake, aware person is. A conviction on the former typically carries a two-year prison sentence, as Hannah Knowles of the San Jose Mercury News detailed on Friday, but provides the option for a judge to lessen it. By contrast, Ramirez faces a three-year mandatory minimum sentence, and probation is not an option, so the heat's perhaps not so much on Persky this time as the state of California law.

This hasn't gone unnoticed by reform advocates or state lawmakers, however ― in the aftermath of the Turner sentencing, there's been an effort to set the same three-year mandatory minimum sentence for sex crimes against unconscious victims.

The major, headline-grabbing controversy about Turner's sentence was undoubtedly due to the shockingly short sentence he got from Persky ― given a longer sentence, three years probation and registry as a sex offender (the latter of which is almost certainly the most serious punishment he'll face) would probably look much more proportional to many people's expectations.

But when it came to sentencing Turner, Persky opted for leniency, on the grounds that Turner had been drunk at the time of his crime, that he was remorseful (although he and his father's statements to the court seemed to show a lot less remorse than self-pity), that he had no prior criminal record, and that longer jail time would have had a "severe impact" on him.

As Stanford law professor Michele Dauber (who has actively been working for Persky's removal) told NPR last month, there's a very real, very big problem with the logic, especially if you're considering a campus sexual assault case at a prestigious, nationally renowned university like Stanford. Namely, sexual assaults in colleges regularly involve alcohol, and by virtue of Stanford's institutional reputation and high acceptance standards, almost any student who goes there is likely to have a clean criminal record and could easily be portrayed as promising, successful, and undeserving of facing such "severe impact." Here's how Dauber put it:

So in order to grant probation in that case the judge had to find on the record that this was an "unusual case" and that the interest of justice really required or would be best served by probation. And he did that by finding that he was intoxicated, and that he was, prior to committing these crimes, a very successful young man who had a great academic record and a lot of athletic accomplishment. And the reason I say this case is dangerous and it makes women less safe at Stanford and other colleges, is that that description fits essentially every campus rape at Stanford certainly and many schools across the country. So it means that he has essentially taken campus rape out of the category of things you can go to prison for, and awarded it a lighter sentence.

Criticism of Perksy hasn't just come from within academia or social justice circles, for what it's. He also drew sharp criticism from one of the jurors in the Turner trial, who voiced disgust with Persky's decision in a letter to the Palo Alto Weekly, accusing him of ignoring the will of the jury because of his personal opinion of the case.