CREDIT: National Organization for Women (NOW)
A 20-year-old in Dallas recently pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl when he was 18, a crime that could have landed him in jail for two decades. Instead, State District Judge Jeanine Howard sentenced him to just 45 days in prison — and, once he gets out, 250 hours of community service volunteering at a rape crisis center.
Howard initially defended her light sentence for defendant Sir Young, saying that the young woman he assaulted “wasn’t the victim she claimed to be” and Young “wasn’t your typical sex offender.” The district judge said that the girl had had other sexual partners, had given birth to a baby, and had initiated contact with Young before he raped her. “There are rape cases that deserve life. There are rape cases that deserve 20 years,” Howard told the Dallas Morning News. “Every now and then you have one of those that deserve probation. This is one of those and I stand by it.”
Young’s community service assignment didn’t sit well with the employees at the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center. “It’s just not an appropriate place for him to do his community supervision,” Bobbie Villareal, the executive director of the organization, told a local ABC News affiliate. “There’s just so many problems with that. First of all, we would worry about our client safety and well-being… Just having a criminal defendant in the office could be a triggering effect for many of our clients.”
“That’s like saying a pedophile should do their community supervision helping at a pre-school,” she added.
Villareal told the probation office that the defendant would not be allowed to complete his community service at the rape crisis center. Now, the judge and the probation officers are working on modifying that portion of Young’s sentence. An alternative volunteer spot hasn’t yet been agreed upon, and Howard has declined to comment.
Even though the community service hours will be reassigned, victim advocates are still criticizing Howard’s light sentence for sending the wrong message about how seriously society ought to punish the people who perpetrate sexual assault. The victim’s mother pointed out that it’s obvious Howard didn’t want to ruin Young’s life. “But what about my daughter’s life?” she said.
The criminal justice system has a long history of sending problematic messages about the way our country should respond to rape cases, and Howard is hardly the first judge to spark controversy in this area. In 2012, a judge in California faced public admonishment after suggesting that women’s bodies can shut down rape. A Montana judge inspired protests in 2013 after he suggested that a 14-year-old rape victim was “as much in control” of the situation as her rapist, and sentenced her assailant to just a month in prison. An Alabama judge has repeatedly sentenced rapists to probation without doling out any jail time.
These judicial decisions are emblematic of a larger societal approach to sexual violence. Thanks to a persistent rape culture that teaches Americans that sexual assault is inevitable and rape victims are to blame for provoking the assaults against them, we don’t always take these cases seriously. In this context, it’s perhaps not hard to understand why so many sexual assault victims don’t want to report the crime to the police or navigate the legal system.