My desire to make a film about the recall of California Judge Aaron Persky was driven by outrage—my own and others’.
In The People v Turner, a jury convicted Stanford swimming star Brock Turner of the sexual assault and attempted rape of an unconscious woman, Chanel Miller, on the university campus. Judge Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail, three years probation, and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. This was the sentence recommended by the probation officer, but vocal advocates for sexual violence prevention and gender justice alleged that Persky’s race, gender, and class biases unfairly influenced his sentencing in favor of Turner (prosecutors had asked for six years of incarceration). The California Commission on Judicial Performance’s investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing nor any pattern of biased sentencing by Judge Persky. Yet public outcry over the sentence mushroomed into a call for Judge Persky’s removal, and voters overwhelmingly stripped him of his judgeship.
Outrage–that potent alchemy of fear, anger, resentment, and disgust–is an appropriate public and personal response to the persistence of sexual harms and our country’s woefully inept response to them. We are outraged that after generations of activism, people still debate how the survivors of sexual violence could have prevented their own victimization, and many remain eager to excuse or normalize sexual harms. We are outraged that our country still relies primarily on the criminal system to address sexual harms even though that system traditionally has failed to solve cases or support survivors, and in fact often retraumatizes them. We are outraged that white, high-profile perpetrators of sexual violence have historically acted with impunity, especially if their victims are from a marginalized community.
My outrage at the persistence and prevalence of sexual violence in this country–on college campuses, in private homes, in workplaces and on the street–is matched by another kind of outrage: my anger at the criminal legal system and its uniquely punitive approach. A system that relies on severe punishment through excessive incarceration and sex offender registries that do not actually prevent sexual harm, but which do prevent people from building stable lives. A system that disproportionately impacts and imprisons Black and brown people, low income people, immigrants, and undocumented people. A system that imposes mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and pursues vengeance and punishment over meaningful accountability and restoration. So I am dismayed by our failure of imagination when we, with the best of intentions, seek to support the very real–and often very harmed–survivors of sexual and gender violence by relying too heavily on that system.
I made THE RECALL: REFRAMED because I wanted to give voice to both kinds of outrage, which often stand in tension with one another but need not. I made it because we need to listen to the chorus of feminists, legal scholars, judges, and movement builders who see the Brock Turner case not as an open-and-shut case of underpunishment, but rather as a complex, nuanced, and deeply meaningful encapsulation of what’s wrong in the American criminal legal system. These voices ask us for more than mere outrage: they challenge us to match our righteous condemnation of sexual violence with an equally dedicated condemnation of punitive, biased mass incarceration policies.
I believe that the pain and anguish suffered by sexual assault survivors, like Chanel Miller, is real and lasting. Too often, cases like hers are poorly investigated, riddled with errors, and deeply retraumatizing. There is no question that our criminal legal system does not serve and protect survivors of sexual violence. There is no question that people responsible for sexual violence like Turner must be held accountable for the harm they cause.
But–and!–the question remains: How can we imagine a form of justice for survivors of sexual violence that does not also perpetuate the harms of mass incarceration? How can we investigate, understand, and respond to perpetrators of sexual and gender violence in a way that restores and rebalances their debt to society, without also stocking our jails and prisons in this, the most incarcerated nation in the world?
James Baldwin wrote that it is the “habits of thought [that] reinforce and sustain the habits of power.” This is the clearest articulation I have found of what I hope our film can accomplish for viewers. How might we shift our habits of thought–our outrage–so that they correct not just the wrongs of sexual violence, but the wrongs of mass incarceration? THE RECALL: REFRAMED cannot answer that question in full, but it seeks to change our frame. It is my hope that it invites all of us to hold in our minds both the critical importance of seeking justice for gender violence, and the equally critical understanding that demanding harsher sentences will only make justice more elusive.
—Rebecca Richman Cohen