Widespread outrage erupted this week after a California judge handed down a six month sentence to a former Stanford student, Brock Turner, who was convicted on three counts of sexual assault.
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Judge Aaron Persky said in his decision a “prison sentence would have a severe impact” on Turner, a star swimmer, and “he will not be a danger to others,” sparking debate about women’s rights and how the U.S. legal system treats white, middle-class men.
“It’s difficult to know what went on in the judge’s mind,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice-oriented non-profit organization. “Race is likely to have played a role but so is social class and it’s often hard to untangle those two considerations.”
READ MORE: Potential jurors refuse to serve judge who sentenced Stanford rapist Brock Turner
Mauer said the case raises much larger questions about the disparity of sentences handed out across the U.S. based on the race of the defendant.
“[Turner] got a much lighter sentence than many others would have received in these circumstances. It’s likely race played part of a role here,” he said. “The research shows us that race still plays a factor in sentencing outcomes.
“Often this is a function of implicit bias, how judges, prosecutors, defence attorneys and others [perceive] defendants or victims and racial considerations that may come into that.”
Global News attempted to reach Judge Persky for comment but was not successful. Joseph Macaluso, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County court, said Persky was prohibited from commenting on the case because Turner is seeking an appeal.
WATCH: Outrage after Stanford rapist gets six months behind bars
A 2012 study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found prison sentences of black men were nearly 20 per cent longer than those of white men for similar crimes.
An academic study published in February of this year examined sentencing patterns in South Carolina and found consistently harsher penalties for African Americans than their white counterparts.
Researchers from the University of Sheffield and University of Minnesota looked at 17,000 court decisions in South Carolina. The data showed that not only were black people more likely to be jailed, but the likelihood of spending time behind bars increased by 43 per cent for those with no previous criminal history.
Brian Banks, a promising high school football player with dreams of playing in college, spent five years in jail after being convicted of a rape in 2007.
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In an interview with New York Daily News, Banks said Tuner’s six-month sentence, which could even be reduced to three months, was based on “privilege.”
“I would say it’s a case of privilege. It seems like the judge based his decision on lifestyle,” Banks told the Daily News. “What about the kid who has no choice who he is born to and has drug-addicted parents or a non-parent household? Where is the consideration for them when they commit a crime?”
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Banks was later exonerated in 2012 after his accuser recanted her story.
The Stanford rape case has received widespread attention from critics who perceived the sentence as too lenient, even leading to calls to remove the judge from the bench.
However, Mauer said criticizing the single decision of a judge can be “misguided.”
“Whether or not one agrees with the decision in this case, if we start debating and taking action on judges for their decision in any given case … that really restricts the independence that’s very critical to have in the judiciary,” he said.