Where I live in Virginia a member of the county board of supervisors was recently charged with the crime of “forcible sodomy,” which carried a sentence of five years to life in prison. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of sexual battery and was sentenced to 30 days in jail plus probation, etc. He professed his innocence of the original charge.
But what is sexual battery if not forcible sex? The fine line drawn between 30 days and life may have less to do with the action being alleged than with the persuasiveness of the allegation, the prosecutor’s confidence of winning a conviction, the schedule and budget of the court, the desire of the accuser or victim to participate in a trial, etc.
If the man was guilty, his penalty seems too light, the lack of a trial seems wrong, and some creative restorative justice seems in order. Little has been done to aid the victim or heal the community.
It is entirely possible that he was entirely innocent. People plead to 30-day sentences in our legal system to avoid a risk of life in prison (including the possibility of becoming a serial rape victim while in prison) all the time. Had the threat been five years rather than “five-years-to-life,” an innocent man might have been more likely to risk a trial to declare his innocence.
If this man was innocent, his penalty is of course too great. Any penalty would be too great. And the lack of any charges against his false accuser would be a miscarriage of justice.
I have no way of knowing which direction our justice system misfired in this case. I know only that it compromised, choosing to lessen the harm done, but aware of necessarily doing harm. And I can think of many ways the system might be improved.
At the same time, I’m aware that there are systems in the world immeasurably worse. There is no system that imprisons people at the rate the United States does, including largely for nonviolent and victimless crimes. But there are epidemics of rape, of gang rape, of rape and torture, of rape and murder. There are epidemics of rape in societies in which no man can be punished in any way, but in which a woman known to have been raped is herself punished, along with her family, along with her children — children who grow up seeing only one path to an existence of reduced shame and humiliation: the path of becoming a soldier in the war that produced the epidemic of rape. And there are echoes of all of this in our own society.
Such horrific situations are described in Ann Jones’ book, War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War. They lead her to an interesting conclusion: