Two star athletes were convicted in separate sexual assault cases, but the outcomes for them were very, very different. Brock Turner, the now-infamous white former Stanford swimmer, received a six month sentence — although it looks like he'll only serve three months — for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on Jan. 18, 2015, when he was 20 years old. The sentencing was so light because, according to the judge, prison would have "a severe impact on him."
All-star, black high school football player Brian Banks, with expectations of one day joining the National Football League, was accused of rape when he was 16 years old. He was tried as an adult, received more than five years in prison and another five years on parole for being a sex offender, before his accuser admitted to fabricating the allegations and all charges were dropped. His aspirations of a college scholarship or one day playing for the NFL were stolen from him.
This is just one in a seemingly endless line of examples which demonstrate the deeply entrenched racism in sentencing across the country.
There is the case of Corey Batey, a black former Vanderbilt University student, also an outstanding sportsman, who in April was convicted — much like Turner — of raping an unconscious, fellow classmate when he was 19 years old in 2013. He received a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 15-25 years, a far cry from Turner's three months.
This difference in sentencing didn't go unnoticed on social media, provoking the ire of the Twitterati.
Turner's case has nourished multiple debates in the public sphere: The role of rape culture and the media's handling of the case, which many have argued is fueled by racial bias, are two such issues. Perhaps the most quantifiable problem to arise out of the ordeal is racially motivated sentencing, a symptom of the justice system's pervasive biases.
The statistics speak for themselves. Black men, on average, receive jail sentences 20% longer than their white counterparts accused of comparable crimes.
"Prosecutorial policies, such as plea bargain guidelines that disadvantage blacks and Latinos compound these disparities, as do sentencing laws that dictate harsher punishments for crimes for which people of color are disproportionately arrested," a Sentencing Project report explains.
"Prosecutors and judges also often treat blacks and Hispanics more harshly in their charging and sentencing decisions," it adds.
That is to say nothing of the arrest rates for different races. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, arrest rates for blacks are almost twice as high as those for whites. And as far as the prison population is concerned, nearly 40% of the United States' incarcerated population is black. Blacks, incidentally, makeup around 13% of the total U.S. population.
To put the scale of those implications in perspective, the United States accounts for almost a quarter of the world's incarcerated populations — more than any other country in the world. It is also worth noting America comprises less than 5% of the global population.
Turner's case has crucially exposed racial disparities in sentencing, prompting many to argue blacks be less severely sentenced. However, it behooves the general public not to conflate this argument with what punitive norms for those convicted of sexual assault should be, for those are two very different beasts.
With nearly one in five women having been raped in America, and less than a third of sexual assault cases getting reported, the stakes clearly aren't high enough for offenders as-is. If Turner's case has taught us anything, it's that both the racial justice system and our collective response to sexual assault are broken.