After decades of tough-on-crime policies that swelled California prisons to the point that they had to be depopulated under a Supreme Court order, support has mounted for rethinking criminal punishment. Voters embraced lighter penalties for offenses such as theft and drug possession, but for sexual assault, legislators have moved in another direction, reports the Sacramento Bee. Tough bills connected to lurid, heavily publicized cases of rape and assault have made civil liberties advocates, public defenders and some legal experts fearful that Sacramento is returning to the sort of knee-jerk responses they say fueled an incarceration boom in the first place.
“We should not simply, because of the crime du jour, go back to old habits,” said law Prof. Michael Vitiello of McGeorge School of Law. “Every time there was a headline crime in the past the Legislature would throw all these enhancements at the law. … It’s bad to make criminal justice policy based on the outlier, horrible case because we’re going to end up forgetting about basic fairness.” One measure would mandate prison terms for sexually assaulting unconscious victims. It was inspired by the case of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, who received a six-month jail sentence that was widely lambasted as too light. Another bill would remove the statute of limitations for bringing sexual assault charges. It followed months of headlines about women accusing entertainer Bill Cosby of rape.