Brock Turner, the former Stanford University swimmer who was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious female student, was released from prison today after serving just three months of his six-month sentence.
Most people are outraged—and for good reason. Turner's sentence was incredibly lenient to begin with. Prosecutors had sought a six-year sentence, and there's good reason to believe that Judge Aaron Persky went easy on Turner for reasons of privilege: he was concerned about the "impact" a long prison sentence would have on Turner, a young white male.
But those in the media who assert that Turner got off with a mere slap on the wrist are only telling half the story. Now that Turner is out of prison, he will have to register as a sex offender—perhaps for the rest of his life.
Turner is not a victim, obviously: he did commit a very serious sex crime, one that could haunt the young woman he assaulted for the rest of her life. It's understandable why she would feel like she was deprived of justice—the man convicted of sexually assaulting her got to walk out prison, three months later, as if the judge cared more about Turner's well-being than her own.
But while Turner's light prison sentence was ill-fitting given the nature of his crime, sex offender registration is similarly misguided. The sex offender registry wasn't designed to be an ongoing punishment, in any case. Rather, it's supposed to be a public safety tool—informing citizens that they live in the vicinity of a sex offender. In theory, the registry protects kids by making it difficult or impossible for sex offenders to live near schools and public parks: not to punish them, but to make it harder for them to commit additional crimes. There are strict limitations on where they can live, they have to inform local officials whenever they move, and they must check-in frequently in order to re-register. (Lenore Skenazy has written about the time registered sex offender Josh Gravens was nearly arrested right in front of her because of a scheduling error.)
There's no reason to believe Turner is a danger to kids, though. And being on the sex offender list won't stop him from engaging in the kind of behavior that got him into trouble: registered sex offenders can still attend college parties and drink alcohol. His status will make it difficult for him to find a place to live or hold a job, but it won't really make anyone safer.
Certainly, a lot of people will respond, who cares? Turner got off easy, anyway, they will say, and the sex offender registry is a relatively small price to pay for not being in prison years longer. All true.
But the purpose of the criminal justice system should be to keep the public safe from people who are truly dangerous, and to work toward rehabilitating everyone else. The sex offender registry utterly fails on both counts. There is no evidence that it reduces the recidivism rates of sex offenders (sex offenders are unlikely to re-offend, at least in comparison to other groups of criminals), and plenty of evidence that it makes it much harder for ex-convicts who no longer pose any danger to re-integrate into society.
Turner's prison sentence was too lenient—a symptom of a justice system that fails to take rape seriously—and yet his subsequent punishment is too harsh, as well as completely disconnected from the crime he committed.
Even Stanford University's Michelle Dauber, a leader of the effort to recall Persky for going easy on Turner, thinks so, according to The Mercury News:
But California and South Carolina are the only states that require all sex offenders to register for life. Even one of the judge's harshest critics, Stanford professor and recall leader Michele Dauber, who maintains Turner should have served time in prison, said lifetime registration is too long in his case. She noted there's no registry for murder.
"I'd say he should get off after 10 years, if he is a Boy Scout and stays out of trouble," Dauber said. "No one should be defined for the rest of their life by their worst moment."
One last thing: even though Turner served a relatively light prison sentence, it's important to note that he was convicted, and he was punished. This should serve as a reminder that the criminal justice system, despite its significant flaws, is still the best and only vehicle for adjudicating violent crimes. If a Stanford kangaroo court had tried Turner in accordance with the farcical standards of due process the Education Department recommends, he wouldn't have served any jail time at all. And he would be suing Stanford.