POLITICS

Public Defenders Stick Up For Judge Persky Amid Recall Effort

Our nation's culture of mass incarceration has warped our view on punishing crime, they argue.
Judge Aaron Persky's sentence for convicted sex offender Brock Turner sparked a huge backlash.
Judge Aaron Persky's sentence for convicted sex offender Brock Turner sparked a huge backlash.

A group of 116 lawyers, criminal defense attorneys and public defenders have signed an open letter in support of Judge Aaron Persky, who handed down a controversial six-month jail term for convicted sex offender Brock Turner.

The sentence, widely considered far too lenient, sparked a national backlash against Persky, including plans to launch a recall effort in 2017. At least 1 million people have signed petitions calling for Perksy's removal from the bench in Santa Clara County, California, and even members of Congress have suggested the judge lose his job. 

Turner was found guilty of three felony sexual assault offenses in March for attacking an unconscious woman on the campus of Stanford University. On June 2, Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail, despite a request from prosecutors for six years in state prison. 

Sajid Khan, a public defender in Santa Clara County and the lead organizer behind the letter supporting Persky, understands people are upset with the sentence, but believes a recall effort is not the right course of action. 

"If there is a concern about his sentence, that should be taken up with the state legislature rather than by seeking to remove the judge for doing his job, exercising discretion and showing compassion," Khan told The Huffington Post.

Indeed, some California lawmakers are proposing to change the legal definition of rape, which could result in stiffer penalties for convicted offenders. This week, another proposed bill put forward would change state law to require prison time for sexual assaults of unconscious people, like in Turner's case. 

But Khan worries these efforts to essentially implement mandatory minimums could have unintended consequences if a judge can't assign a sentence consistent with the facts of a case or a guilty person. 

"This lack of discretion that comes with mandatory minimums will perpetuate policies that have previously resulted in mass incarceration," Khan said. "Such policies will disproportionately impact the underprivileged and minorities in the criminal justice system and in our communities."

The letter was organized after attorney Laurie Ellen Park contacted Khan about a blog he wrote tying Turner's case to the culture of mass incarceration. Khan and Park wondered if they should start a petition in support of Persky. Park and Khan decided to draft an open letter, crafted with help from public defender colleagues Avi Singh and Jennifer Redding, and collected signatures from other attorneys in the area. 

They initially placed the open letter as a petition on MoveOn.org, but said it was taken down without explanation. MoveOn.org's terms of service state it reserves the right to remove a petition that is "inconsistent with the goals, objectives, philosophies, and/or purpose" of the liberal organization. The organizers reposted it on Change.org and have collected 279 signatures so far. 

Khan said he doesn't know of a similar firestorm in recent decades over a single sentence in California. It'd be "refreshing" to see outrage when judges impose too harsh of sentences for a particular crime or offender, he added. 

"Unfortunately," Khan said, "the countless defendants who have suffered relatively harsh sentences in our state fall below any headline."

Below is the entire open letter in support of Judge Persky:

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Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter, focusing on higher education and sexual violence, and is based in New York. You can reach him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.

 

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