Capitol Alert

Amid Stanford case, California moves to toughen sex assault laws

With the support of liberal Democrats who tend to oppose tougher crime laws, a California Senate panel moved Tuesday to fortify California’s sexual assault penalties in response to the nationally watched case of a former Stanford swimmer who received a sentence widely criticized as too lenient.

After being convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, Brock Turner received a lighter sentence than what prosecutors sought. The outcome has fomented national outrage and fueled efforts to unseat the judge who said Turner merited the lesser penalty.

The political fallout continued to unfold Tuesday as the Senate Public Safety Committee advanced bills intended to subject future perpetrators in cases like Turner’s to tougher penalties. One would mandate prison sentences for sexual assaults of unconscious victims. The other seeks to expand the definition of rape to include all types of penetration. Both bills must survive floor votes in both houses before going to Gov. Jerry Brown.

Among those supporting the bill cracking down on crimes involving unconscious victims were Santa Clara County prosecutors, including the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the Turner case.

“We all need to try to protect the next Emily Doe against the next Brock Turner,” prosecutor Alaleh Kianerci testified. “It’s on us.”

Echoing that theme of preventing future campus assaults, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen argued that the bill would “hold accountable sexual offenders who go unnoticed within our state’s college campuses.”

“They don’t fit some people’s image of a predator,” Rosen said. “Instead of brandishing knives or threats, these predators use vodka or beer. They use the cover of an outdated, offensive perception that campus sexual assaults are simply youthful, drunken indiscretions.”

For years, California has sought to reduce a prison population swollen in part by tougher sentencing laws approved in the 1980s and 1990s. Opponents of Assembly Bill 2888, including the American Civil Liberties Union, warned of repeating that history, with ACLU lobbyist Mica Doctoroff warning that “hasty policy-making” in response to specific outrage-generating cases has had “unintended consequences.”

“Mandatory minimum sentencing is poor policy that disproportionately impacts communities of color,” Doctoroff said.

Yet even liberal lawmakers typically skeptical of increasing criminal penalties voted for AB 2888. Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who for years pushed to do away with mandatory felony sentences for drug crimes, noted that current law imposes harsher penalties for sexual assaults that entail use of force.

“What’s the more despicable crime? The sexual assault or the sexual predatory assault?” Leno said. “In the latter, the victim is the weakest, the most (defenseless), the most vulnerable. Isn’t that the more serious crime?”

The bill expanding the definition of rape, Assembly Bill 701, came from two lawmakers who have championed efforts to oust Judge Aaron Persky, who presided over Turner’s case. Noting that Turner digitally penetrated his victim, they argued California law fails to punish assailants for the full spectrum of sexual violence.

“Rape is rape,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens.

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert