Restorative Justice Requires Rehabilitation

Rowan Bassman

Content warning: This op-ed contains discussion of sexual assault.

To Judge Aaron Persky:

This is not the first open letter or protest you’ve received on this topic, and it won’t be the last.

Convicted rapist Brock Turner was released from prison Sept. 2 after serving three months of the six-month sentence you gave him. He was in prison for the length of a summer break and has returned to his family home in Dayton, Ohio.

During the sentencing in June, you expressed the opinion that Brock Turner “will not be a danger to others.” It’s impressive to me that you trust a man who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The basis of your faith is unclear. Of course, your shared affiliation as Stanford athletes has not gone unnoticed.

You also cited your fear that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.” In other words, you are concerned about Brock Turner’s future. I get it; you may be vested with authority over other people’s fates, but at least you have compassion, right?

Well, I, too, am concerned about Brock Turner’s future. As in, I’m concerned for every person he meets. I’m concerned that he lives here in Ohio. I’m concerned that Brock Turner already served the sentence you gave him — served, in the past tense. Timeout over. Doesn’t it feel soon, even to you?

As a survivor of sexual assault myself, there is a part of me that would relish seeing Brock Turner rot. It would be vindicating to see him serve the prosecutors’ recommended six years; surely he deserves life without parole. And this would absolutely be more palatable to me than the sick joke of a sentence you gave him.

But I am also sickened by our culture of vengeance, by our collective desire to see the suffering of those we’ve deemed evil. Prison functions in our society as the primary conduit for this sadistic urge toward vengeance — one that often outstrips the violence of those we’ve imprisoned and also manifests in undeniably racist ways. And while it would be fair to see Brock Turner subjected to the same standard, I too wonder what good the rampant abuses of prison life would do for this violent and ignorant man.

Restorative justice demands a lot of faith in other people’s potential for redemption. Maybe even Brock Turner’s.

So I believe the proper sentence for Brock Turner would have been the recommended six years in prison — and the course load for a bachelor’s and master’s degree in gender studies.

Make Brock Turner learn about patriarchy and rape culture. Make him listen to the voices of survivors. Make him read the searing letter from the woman he assaulted each morning before he starts class and each night before he goes to sleep. Make him read three books a week, make him truly reflect, make him write dozens of essays. Don’t let him believe his story is the tragedy of the dangers of alcohol and “promiscuity” — make him understand his own culpability as a rapist. Call him out every single time he tries to use his new vocabulary to equivocate. Make sure he gets it. Make sure he has an intersectional understanding of the white privilege and class dynamics that have given him unchecked power his whole life, the same privileges that almost let him walk free after three months in prison. Make him sit at a prison desk until he has written a brilliant thesis on rape culture in America, backed by six years of research and personal experience. Make absolutely sure that, when he leaves his six-year sentence, he is prepared to live the rest of his life with genuine empathy.

You see, Judge Persky, I’ve gathered that you’re concerned about the future of Brock Turner. I take that to mean that you want him to help others instead of hurting them, that you want him to be a productive member of society, that you want him to learn from his mistakes.

So do I.