Criminal Justice

Larry Nassar Sexually Abused More Than 100 Girls. That Doesn't Mean He Should Be Raped in Prison.

"Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment," said Aquilina. She should have stopped there.



When Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar this week, she declared that "our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls—these young women in their childhood—I would allow someone or many people to do to him what he did to others."

That sure sounds like Aquilina was saying she wanted Nassar to be sexually abused. That's wildly inappropriate not just in itself, but in a sentencing hearing that otherwise served as a strong reminder of the horrors of sexual assault. Nearly 150 victims were able to read impact statements before the court, and Aquilina affirmed and comforted each one after she spoke. It seems terribly unwise to compromise the moral power of that reminder by suggesting sexual assault should be a criminal punishment.

Modern, civil, liberal society has discarded the notion of "an eye for an eye." Our system is designed to achieve justice, not vengeance, which is why we extend due process even to the least sympathetic villains. I can certainly understand why Nassar victims would tempted by thoughts of vengeance. Many people enjoy imagining ghastly things happening to their enemies, and these women certainly have a legitimate reason to feel angry. But for the steward of the legal system to vocalize this scenario from the bench is another matter.

Prison rape is already all too real a phenomenon. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, 4 percent of federal and state and prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates were sexually abused in 2011–2012. Those numbers may seem small, but the total U.S. prison population is 2.5 million. And the percentages are often higher in juvenile facilities, where the sexual abuse rate is 10 percent. In 80 percent of those juvenile cases, the perpetrator was someone who worked at the prison, rather than another inmate.

Nassar would not be a particularly sympathetic rape victim. Some would doubtless consider any violence he suffers to be cosmic justice. But Aquilina is an agent of the law, not of divine retribution.