Racism in Sentencing From Stanford to London

13/06/2016 15:54

Nostradamus is reputed to have foretold the atrocities of Hitler, the atomic bomb, the even the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.  But reading through his quatrains one can see that like astrology, these predictions are so loosely worded such that any major world event might fit into his prose.  However, the "trick" to discerning the future, is to truly comprehend the past. Nowhere is this more salient than the events of this past week where yet another white sexual assailant, Brock Turner, gets away with an incredibly light sentence echoing "affluenza teen," Ethan Couch, who was found guilty in 2013 of intoxication manslaughter for recklessly driving under the influence and killing four people.   Brock Turner's six-month sentence, now recently reduced to three months, reflects the American judicial system's love affair with white males who seem to be able to do no wrong, or who, when caught, are given a far lighter treatment than other males who are darker skinned or who come from poverty.  And this tradition is not new, but reading major media one would think so.

New Yorkers might remember Robert Chambers who was charged and tried for two counts of second-degree murder in 1988, a case also called "The Preppie Murder."  Thanks in large part to the media such as the New York Daily News, this case was spun in trial and in the headlines as "Sex Play Got Rough." The rough sex defense was the first of its kind and served to divert the attention from Chamber's murder of Jennifer Levin to the more lurid reversal of Chambers' defense strategy--namely, that it was he who was sexually aggressed.  Chambers was sentenced to 5 to 15 years.  Conversely, Tyfine Hamilton was sentenced to 25 to 80 years of prison for third-degree murder and robbery.  Guess which one of these men is black?

Prison sentences of black men are, on average, about 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes.  The Wall St Journal report from 2013 states: "That racial gap has widened since the Supreme Court restored judicial discretion in sentencing in 2005, according to the Sentencing Commission's findings, which were submitted to Congress last month and released publicly this week." The commission, part of the judicial branch, avoiding implicating racist judgments among federal judges, but added that they "make sentencing decisions based on many legitimate considerations that are not or cannot be measured."  That cannot be measured or that are simply not put under any critical scrutiny?  It is common knowledge today that there is a federal law that creates harsher penalties for crack-cocaine offenses (more frequently committed by black persons) than for powder-cocaine offenses (more frequently committed by white persons). Congress reduced the disparity in 2010 with the Fair Sentencing Act.  Still it is painfully obvious that for other crimes, black and brown people are given far harsher sentences.

And if we move to rape and sexual assault cases then the same disparity exists. Take for instance, Cory Batey, a 19-year-old football player at Vanderbilt University who raped an unconscious woman.  In April, Batey was found guilty of three felony counts including aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery and  was immediately remanded into custody to serve a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 to 25 years in prison.  Compare this to Brock Turner's fourth month sentence and the racial divide becomes painfully evident.

In the UK the situation is not much better where white men receive far lighter sentences for more crimes committed.  Just this past week Richard Huckle received 22 concurrent life sentences at the Old Bailey for preying on children pleading guilty to 71 charges of abuse against 23 victims.  Huckle must spend a minimum of 25 years behind bars before being considered for release. And the case of Steven Mays jailed for eight years and eight months for 14 charges against eight different women, some of whom were pregnant is also rather lenient when put next to those of black or brown assailants.  Take for instance the case of Mebrehtom Abrha, an Eritrean who was jailed for ten years for ten years for the rape of a woman in Toxeth in 2015. Even the media coverage of how rape is covered in the UK varies immensely when the perpetrators are a gang of white men such as last year's gang of pedophiles who raped and abused children of all ages to the Rotherham gang of men, primarily of Pakistani origin while only the Muslim community was targeted in a rather problematic deflection of male violence onto religion.  Related to race, is the fact that class and wealth play a role in the evaluation of crime in this country as per the case of Andrew Picard, Eaton student, who was spared prison despite having over 2,000 images of children as young as two being raped.

The issue of racism and rape as a long and sorted legacy in the United States, but is an issue that needs to be addressed institutionally.  Aside from reforms in sentencing within the US to the UK justice systems which address racism, there needs to be honest discussions of male violence against women, specifically that of sexual violence.  And this subject needs to be addressed in schools within sex education classes that teach issues related to puberty, sexuality, reproduction.  Petition after petition to enact such a measure in the UK and US have been started but all of them barely manage to get many signatures. We need to reach out to our lawmakers to write directly to raise this as an issue of urgency so that children, especially males, might be taught early on not to rape.  Rape is a social and cultural problem which can only be combatted through enforcement and education.