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The cognitive dissonance of Brock Turner

A well-intentioned recall campaign to combat White privilege and end sexual violence resulted in additional centuries of incarceration disproportionately impacting low-income individuals and people of color

Alex LaSalvia/Reuters/Adobe/NBC

This article is part of a series created in collaboration with Inquest, Lux Magazine, and The Recall: Reframed’s outreach campaign.

We made THE RECALL: REFRAMED to ask people to hold, at the same time, what may seem at first to be two irreconcilable beliefs: that we need to seek far more justice for survivors of gender violence, and that demanding harsh sentences fuels a punishment system that disproportionately harms vulnerable communities and people of color. And we made this film because we think we can achieve both – we can have robust support for those who have experienced grave harm, and we can end mass incarceration. But we don’t talk enough about how to reconcile these two important goals.

The film examines the 2018 recall election of California Judge Aaron Persky, who lost his judgeship after handing down a short jail sentence to Stanford swimmer Brock Turner for sexual assault. Chanel Miller, the survivor in the case, published her raw and powerful victim impact statement, which went viral and became an anthem for the #MeToo movement. As America grappled with an overdue reckoning of the widespread nature of sexual harms, our inadequate response to them, and the way privilege permeates our entire legal system, the case seemed to exemplify everything that was wrong with our culture and criminal system.

Supporters of the recall hailed it as a victory against rape culture, white privilege, and a system stacked against survivors of sexual violence. But the full story is more complicated. We made a film that explores the unintended consequences of equating incarceration with justice: instead of combating white privilege, the recall exacerbated inequality. In the six weeks following the announcement of the recall campaign, sentences increased 30% across the state of California, a burden that was felt unequally across class and race.

This brutal reality can be deeply unsettling for people who supported the recall as a means to combat rape culture and support fairness in sentencing. Witnessing this reaction led us to reflect on why the film can lead to cognitive dissonance.

Below is the full twenty-minute film followed by a conversation between the filmmakers, Rebecca Richman Cohen and Yoruba Richen.

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN (Director and Producer): THE RECALL: REFRAMED is a difficult film to watch. It’s about hard things: sexual violence, state violence, and racism. But it’s also hard because it takes the recall – what many saw as this righteous, symbolic victory on behalf of people who often aren’t heard – and looks at the harm it caused. It asks us to fundamentally reconsider the consequences of our commitment to punishment, even for people we fundamentally dislike. That requires us to undo something totally ingrained in our DNA. But that’s the goal of the film: to make us question whether our long-held assumptions are accurate.

Filmmakers Yoruba Richen and Rebecca Richman Cohen.The Recall: Reframed

At the time of the recall, I remember having intense conversations with friends whose politics were aligned with mine, but who saw the recall very differently than I did. They were outspoken feminists with an awareness of the harms of mass incarceration and structural racism in the criminal legal system. And they viewed Brock Turner’s sentence as a grave injustice on two fronts: it devalued the experience of survivors of sexual violence and it went too easy on a white, privileged defendant. So, their support for the recall was a well-intentioned desire to correct this double injustice.

My view was that demanding more prison time for Brock Turner and punishing a judge who gave a relatively lenient jail sentence would not correct any racial disparity. Instead, it would entrench our dependence on harsh prison sentences as the primary solution to sexual violence, and make judges fear recalls if they were too “soft on crime.” And, in fact, the research has shown that the primary impact of the recall was to increase the punishment for all crimes across the board. With that information, it’s easy to see how the recall set a dangerous precedent that could make it harder to dismantle mass incarceration. Demanding a harsher sentence for Brock Turner resulted in harsh sentences for a whole lot of people who were not Brock Turner. At the same time, the robust needs of survivors of sexual assault remained unaddressed. These conversations were important and I wanted to create a film that could replicate them on a larger scale.

YORUBA RICHEN (Producer): I agree with your friends about the sentence. I was – and still am – outraged at what happened to Chanel Miller. Her victim impact statement haunted me. She was violated and then she was failed again and again by the criminal legal system.

Then I looked at this privileged, white defendant who got what seemed like a slap on the wrist. When you put it in the context of the decades served by Black people for crimes that caused a fraction of the harm, it’s infuriating. It’s hard to imagine a Black defendant getting off so lightly, based on who’s held in prisons today. It hit home for me. Much of my work examines race, space, and power and this case seemed to highlight how glaring racialized sentencing disparities still are.

Honestly, I was skeptical at first. It was not immediately intuitive to me that the recall, which stood for supporting survivors and condemning the racial disparity in the legal system, could be a problem. I think the research on the impact this had on sentencing across California did a lot in leading me to see the recall differently. The recall led to centuries of extra time in prisons, and that time was given disproportionately to Black and brown people. The more I learned about the case and the aftermath of the recall, the more I came to see the urgency of reframing the story. The recall came with some consequences we can’t ignore.

Personally, I disagree with the sentence, but I also disagree with the recall.

REBECCA: I think that’s what’s so hard for people to hold. They think you have to pick one or the other. And it is also uncomfortable, I think, to examine the consequences of our commitment to incarceration through the lens of a sentence that may have come down because of white privilege. We should be doing this analysis constantly. Most cases don’t end with a recall – and there aren’t studies that show the immediate effects of such a high-profile action. And it turns out that each time we demand a harsher sentence, we are reinforcing the norm that long prison time is appropriate.

At this point, we’ve done enough screenings to have a good sense of how it lands. And there is definitely a group of people who are deeply unsettled by it. They view the sentence as a grave injustice and it is very hard for them to see the recall as anything other than a correction of that injustice. I can understand how the film, which argues that the recall actually deepened injustice, would be tough to take.

YORUBA: I can understand that too. And I think that is the beauty of this film and of documentary films more broadly – that unsettled feeling is often the uncomfortable part of a rewarding discussion that can deepen understanding and connection. That’s why I love the question at the end of the film: “How can we imagine a form of justice that does not perpetuate the harms of mass incarceration?”

My hope is that people can start thinking about other ways to channel their outrage. For starters, we should listen to the range of things survivors tell us they need. Financial support, counseling, public acknowledgment, medical care – criminal trials offer none of these things, but they can be incredibly important to survivors. I’m also excited about the promise of restorative justice and transformative justice.

REBECCA: Yes! I also see a place for political work. What if we put the same energy we saw poured into the recall into electing judges and prosecutors who want to rethink harsh sentences and focus on diversion and rehabilitation? What if we actually invested in prevention – in interventions in domestic violence, for example, to stop sexual harm long-term? The goal of the recall was to level up sentences like Brock Turner’s, but I would like to see us focus instead on real prevention and bringing our criminal sentences more in line with the rest of the world.

YORUBA: I agree with all of that. Once you look beyond having only a single tool – harsh prison sentences – it is exciting to imagine the other possible ways of seeking justice, providing support, facilitating accountability, and even preventing future sexual violence. The recall was, at its core, a demand for more prison. What we really need is more justice.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Yoruba Richen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the founding director of the documentary program at Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

Rebecca Richman Cohen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School.