In California, a new bill would require colleges and universities to impose a mandatory minimum sentence for campus sexual assault: two years school suspension. The rule would apply to both public and private colleges that rely on state funds for student financial aid, the same way California's affirmative consent measure operates.
Since the affirmative consent law—proscribing a "yes means yes" sexual consent standard—was enacted last year, school systems and states across the country have adopted or considered a similar standard. In an era of heightened awareness/paranoia about campus rape, Williams' new mandatory minimum measure should find lots of allies. But is it wise? Even some in the sexual assault advocacy community seem skeptical. Elizabeth Woodson is Stanford student body president, co-chair of the school's sexual assault task force, and pushing for Stanford to expel any student found guilty of sexual assault. And yet, notes HuffPost:
Woodson is excited the legislature is paying attention to the issue, but said she can appreciate the importance of allowing each university to have autonomy over its policies. To that end, Woodson could not say whether it's better for sanctioning standards to be set by the schools or the legislature. She also noted there's little data on whether prescribing more strict punishments will increase or decrease the number of rape victims reporting assaults.
A two-year school suspension does sound like light punishment for sexual assault. But that largely depends on how you define sexual assault. Under California law, it's a failure to obtain ongoing, enthusiastic, affirmative consent at each stage of a sexual encounter. The severity of transgressions legally deemed sexual assault vary widely, making the discretion of people investigating each individual case quite important. Williams' bill would take that discretion away, imposing suspension even in cases where circumstances might not warrant it.
It also furthers the baffling idea that campus assault victims should go to their R.A.s rather than police. But while getting sexual predators off campus is all well and good, shouldn't we care about people they could victimize off campus too?
Williams proposal seems well-intentioned but misguided, its priorities and incentives skewed. These are exactly the kind of conditions that gave birth to the mandatory minimimum prison sentence movement. In the 1980s and 1990s, state and federal legislators started rapidly escalating the criminal penalties for various drug offenses, and one of their favorite way to do this was through mandatory minimums, legal requirements that take sentencing discretion away from from judges in favor of an inflexible, statutorily parametered punishment for anyone convicted of a particular crime. Recently, criminal justice reformers in both major parties have been keen on scaling back these mandatory minimums, which have largely driven up prison populations without driving down drug use. But even as mandatory minimums for (at least some) drug penalties are on the way out, lawmakers and activists continue advocating statutory sentencing enhancements for sex-related crimes.