There will be few tears for Aaron Persky.
California voters gave the Superior Court judge his walking papers last week. Persky, the state’s first judge to be recalled since 1932, became a target of national fury two years ago when he sentenced Brock Turner, a Stanford University student convicted of sexually assaulting a young woman after she got drunk at a party.
Turner was facing up to 14 years behind bars. Persky gave him six. Months. A harsher sentence, fretted the judge, “would have a severe impact on him.” This unseemly solicitude for the welfare of a man caught in the act of digitally penetrating an unresponsive woman behind a Dumpster seemed symbolic of our national failure to take sexual assault seriously.
It’s worth noting that some observers have worried Persky’s removal may have a chilling effect on the judiciary, dissuading judges from leniency, even where leniency is warranted. It’s a valid concern. Judicial independence is critical to a healthy democracy.
On the other hand, enough is enough. Persky’s firing serves as a symbolic rebuke of a culture that finds it all too easy to rationalize, overlook and forgive the violation of women and girls.
Of course, the problem with a symbolic statement is that it is, well … symbolic, allowing the impression of change without necessarily changing anything. That’s not to say this one is unimportant but, rather, that we can’t settle for that. Gratifying as it is, Persky’s firing is unlikely to have any impact on how our justice system treats sexual-assault survivors. And that’s something that desperately needs correcting.
Consider the HBO documentary, “I Am Evidence,” produced by Mariska Hargitay, who, for almost 20 years, has played a sex-crimes detective on NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.” The film is required viewing for anyone seeking to understand just how seriously we as a people take those crimes. Because it argues persuasively that the answer is: not very.
“Evidence,” you see, uncovers a shameful truth, shocking to those of us who had assumed, naively, that when you call police to report a sexual assault, they investigate the crime and try to find the perpetrators. Turns out they don’t. Turns out rape kits — the evidence collected from a rape survivor’s body in those intrusive and humiliating post-trauma examinations — routinely end up stacked in warehouses, never opened, much less tested. Endthebacklog.org, a project of Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, says there are hundreds of thousands of unopened kits in this country — more than 13,000 in Florida alone.
Those numbers are outrageous. They are disgraceful.
All those women, waiting for justice that will never come. All those rapists, free to rape again. And again. Small wonder that, according to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, only six in every thousand sexual assaults ends in a prison sentence.
The rape-kit backlog, we are told, exists because there is not enough personnel, not enough money. But it seems apparent there is also not enough giving a damn.
Persky exemplifies that insufficiency, yes, but he did not create it. One suspects California voters are feeling rather righteous at having given him the boot. Well, though it might flatter self-image to consider Persky a bizarre outlier, alien to our values, the painful truth is that he is our values as reflected in hundreds of thousands of rape kits gathering dust. Yes, it goes without saying that the judge should be ashamed of himself.
But he’s not the only one.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at email@example.com.