The Science (or Lack Thereof) Behind Sentencing

The botched sentencing of convicted rapist Brock Allen Turner proves just how unscientific and capricious the justice system is. Mr. Turner, a 20-year old Stanford University student who was also a star swimmer, received a six-month jail sentence after being found guilty of sexual-assault-a laughable short sentence considering the nature of the crime. The sentence has provoked a public backlash against the sentencing judge – Judge Aaron Persky of Santa Clara County Superior Court.

A sentence like this illustrates that there is absolutely no rhyme or reason with regard to the decisions made in the courts. It’s as if the decision about sentencing (even guilt or innocence) depend on little more than the weather. The system that gave Mr. Turner his six month vacation could have given a first-time petty thief a decade in a maximum security institution. There appears to be no calibration. Even small time drug offenders habitually endure prison sentences longer than six months. One shudders to think the duration of the sentence Mr. Turner would have been slapped with had he been Hispanic or African American.

What is abundantly clear is that the criminal-justice system needs to be more formulaic and less dependent on the whims of judges or jurors who may or may not be in a good mood that particular day.

Now that many are calling for Judge Persky to be recalled, the next sentencing judge who is placed in a similar position might feel obligated to dole out a gratuitously harsh sentence disproportionate to the crime out of fear of igniting another public firestorm. The pendulum would swing from inadequate to excessive.

This and many other cases overwhelmingly confirm the need to create reliable algorithms that can be used to help issue correct rulings and leave as much of the decision out of the hands of fickle judges as possible.

Sherene G.

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