Same Crime, but Not the Same Time
The last couple of years have provided many clear examples that racism is still very prominent in the United States: multiple high-profile police killings of young black men, the racially-motivated shooting of nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, and the ongoing debate over the removal of the Confederate flag. Janie Velencia, Majority of White People Say There’s Racism Everywhere, but Not Around Them, Huffington Post (Sep. 9, 2015), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/white-people-racism-poll_us_55a91a4fe4b0c5f0322d17f2. The last year has also shed light on the tendency for convicted whites to receive more lenient sentences than minorities who commit the same crimes. While recent cases such as the Brock Turner case sparked public outcry, this is not a new issue.
In 2013, an analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that black men’s prison sentences were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for comparable crimes. Joe Palazzolo, Racial Gap in Men’s Sentencing, Wall Street J. (Feb. 14, 2013, 5:36 PM), http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324432004578304463789858002. Furthermore, “[r]esearch has also shown that race plays a significant role in the determination of which homicide cases result in death sentences.” ACLU, Racial Disparities in Sentencing: Hearing on Reports of Racism in the Justice System of the United States 1 (2014), https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/141027_iachr_racial_disparities_aclu_submission_0.pdf.
Correspondingly, “[t]he racial disparities increase with the severity of the sentence imposed.” Id. In 2008, African Americans constituted 48.3% of convicted offenders who received a life sentence, despite only making up about 12% of the U.S. population at that time. Ashley Nellis & Ryan S. King, The Sentencing Project, No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America (2009), http://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/No-Exit-The-Expanding-Use-of-Life-Sentences-in-America.pdf. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union conducted a study that showed that approximately 65% of prisoners who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses were African American. ACLU, A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses (2013), https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/111813-lwop-complete-report.pdf.
Not only is it beneficial to be white while being sentenced, but it is even better to be a white athlete being sentenced. A California court and judge faced extensive public scrutiny after the ruling in People v. Turner. In March of 2016, Turner was convicted of the “intent to commit rape of an intoxicated/unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person and penetration of an unconscious person.” Ashley Fantz, Outrage Over 6-Month Sentence for Brock Turner in Stanford Rape Case, CNN (June 7, 2016, 8:45 AM), http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/06/us/sexual-assault-brock-turner-stanford/. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed all-American swimmer was caught on top of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster near a fraternity party. Id. Judge Aaron Persky deemed a six-month sentence with probation an appropriate sentence for Turner because, “[a] prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.” Id.
But being a collegiate athlete does not necessarily help in the criminal justice system if you are black. Former Vanderbilt football player Cory Batey, an African American, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for raping an unconscious woman. David Boroff, Former Vanderbilt Football Player Cory Batey Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison for Raping an Unconscious Woman with His Teammates, N.Y. Daily News (July 15, 2016, 1:55 PM), http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/ex-vanderbilt-football-player-cory-batey-sentenced-15-years-article-1.2712969. While there are notable differences between Batey’s case and Turner’s case, some wonder whether the differences justify over a fourteen-year difference in jail time. Lisa Gutierrez, Meme of Brock Turner and Cory Batey Ignites Debate About Race and Sexual Assault Sentences, Kansas City Star (June 9, 2016, 2:06 PM), http://www.kansascity.com/news/nation-world/national/article82781372.html.
Judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced Turner, has faced harsh public criticism. Almost 1.3 million people signed a petition for an impeachment hearing for Judge Persky by the California Assembly. Maria Ruiz, Remove Judge Aaron Persky from The Bench for Decision in Brock Turner Rape Case, Change.org, https://www.change.org/p/california-state-house-recall-judge-aaron-persky (last visited Nov. 11, 2016). An official campaign has been launched by Progressive Women of Silicon Valley to recall Judge Persky. Comm. to Recall Judge Persky, Recall Judge Aaron Persky, http://www.recallaaronpersky.com (last visited Nov. 11, 2016). The petitioners have been somewhat successful because on September 6, Judge Persky began exclusively hearing civil cases. Alfred Ng, California Judge Behind Brock Turner’s Sexual Assault Sentencing Will No Longer Handle Criminal Cases, N.Y. Daily News (Aug. 25, 2016, 9:27 PM), http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/stanford-rapist-judge-no-longer-handle-criminal-cases-article-1.2766292. Nevertheless, “even after Persky’s move from criminal to civil cases, the outcry for his recall remains strong.” Id.
Despite the recent highly publicized incidents of racism in America, this is not a new issue. Racism has existed in the United States since its creation. Many laws and statutes have been put in place in order to try and end racial discrimination, but that does not guarantee that the law will be applied equally to everyone. African-Americans still receive significantly longer sentences than whites for comparable crimes. Black athletes still receive harsher punishments than white athletes. It is about time America started to take notice and demand answers for these discrepancies.
*Nicole Smith is a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she is a staff editor for Law Review. In the summer of 2016, she interned for the Honorable Timothy Meredith at the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. She currently interns at the Office of the Attorney General’s Organized Crime Unit and works at Weinberg & Schwartz, L.L.C.