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Why Are Judges Giving Light Sentences to Rapists?

Over the past months, the internet has been abuzz with the news that a judge has — once again — given a convicted rapist an incredibly lenient sentence. This has happened far too often in recent history, including:

  • Judge Aaron Persky giving Brock Turner just 6 months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman because a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on him. Turner was recently released after spending just 3 months in prison.

  • Judge Todd Baugh gave 47 year old teacher Stacey Dean Rambold just 30 days in jail for raping a 14 year old student, who committed suicide while the case was pending. Judge Baugh was later censured by the Montana Supreme Court.

  • Judge Patrick Butler sentenced t Austin Wilkerson to just two years in prison on a work-release program (so that he can leave during the day and report back to prison at night) for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

  • Judge Thomas Estes sentenced David Becker to just two years’ probation — which he can serve in another state, where he intends to go to college — for sexually assaulting two unconscious women.

Despite public uproar over these light sentences, it seems as though these judges do not care: they hand out punishments that do not fit the crime. They seem to be more concerned with the effect on the perpetrator than on how these crimes have affected the victims. How is this happening?

There is a fairly simple answer to this question: judges keep handing out shockingly lenient sentences for heinous crimes because of rape culture. In other words, because we live in a society where sexual violence is normalized and consent is poorly understood, these judges believe that what these men have done is not really that bad. Even when the defendant admits the crime and pleads guilty — as in the David Becker case — the judges seem to be reluctant to mete out punishment that fits the crime. They appear to focus on what the victims may have done wrong — such as drinking too much or “appearing older than her chronological age” — and decide that the defendant shouldn’t be punished too harshly for something they believe wasn’t really his fault.

A fundamental misconception of what sexual assault is also seems to play a role. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of sexual assaults are not committed by the proverbial stranger in the alley. They’re perpetrated by someone known to the victim, and often close to them or living in their own home. ( These judges seem to believe that when a man sexually assaults an unconscious woman, it isn’t really the same as attacking someone in a parking lot, or breaking into their home — and so it doesn’t deserve the same level of punishment as a “real” rape. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sexual assault is a crime, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a stranger or known to the victim. It is a crime whether the victim is sober or unconscious (in fact, if a person is unconscious they cannot — by definition! — consent to sexual activity). It is a crime whether the perpetrator has a bright future or not. And it has a serious impact on the well-being of the victim no matter how it occurs.

How do we change the way that criminals are sentenced for crimes of sexual assault? One answer is something that has already been done — demand that judges who give light sentences to sexual predators be removed from the bench. But a more fundamental change may have a broader impact: we have to focus on education efforts to increase understanding of what sexual assault actually is, and what consent looks like. We also need to create a major change in our society so that these types of crimes are not viewed as acceptable. That these crimes continue to happen is a function of rape culture — of a society that normalizes sexual violence to the point that an unconscious woman is viewed as an opportunity, rather than as a person to protect. It is also a function of male privilege; the defendants in these cases were not confused about consent or what sexual assault is. They did not believe that an unconscious woman — a person who was unable to form a coherent thought — had consented to sex. They believed that they had the right to take what they want, when they want it — and with these exceptionally light sentences, the judges affirmed that belief.

In Westmoreland County, you can help us continue to provide education and training to our community and change our culture in several ways. Join one of our groups, Future Advocates of Blackburn (FAB) or Men As Allies. Donate to support our mission, or volunteer to help our organization continue its work. You can also make changes in your daily life, by calling out those who minimize sexual violence or attempt to blame the victim. By committing to action, we can make a real difference!

Learn More:

Sexual Assault

Consent: A Refresher

Men As Allies

Future Advocates of Blackburn



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