This comprehensive discussion guide dives deep into all of the topics explored in the film. It offers questions to pose to viewers as well as sample answers and additional contextual information to enrich the conversation.

We also encourage you to check out our Screening Toolkit, which has resources for facilitating trauma-informed discussions and insights on inviting panelists who may provide additional expertise on these questions.


In 2016, Brock Turner sexually assaulted Chanel Miller as she lay unconscious on a public walkway at Stanford University, where Turner was a student. Based in part on Turner’s clean record and on the recommendation of the probation department, Judge Aaron Persky  sentenced Turner to six months incarceration in jail, three years probation, and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. The short period of incarceration, at a time when many believed those with power did not take campus sexual assault seriously, catapulted the case into the national spotlight. Activists demanded that voters recall Judge Persky. In 2018, they did just that, making Judge Persky the first California judge to be recalled in over 80 years.

Revisiting those events, this film invites the viewer to reflect upon whether the recall achieved its goal of advancing justice for survivors of sexual violence. The film forces us to grapple with the unintended consequences of our responses to individual cases like Turner’s, and asks whether our push for punishment in one case may cause harm to others.

The guide below poses discussion questions for the film. We also offer some ideas and responses to guide discussion. At the end, we offer suggestions for further thought and discussion about our criminal legal system and the purposes it serves, and for how to engage with your elected officials to push for better support for survivors.

The questions here progress as the film does, all building to one critical question: what should justice look like? This question is obviously extremely difficult to answer, and people grapple with it every day. The prompts below, along with the film, are designed to push us to both explore different ways that we can promote healing and accountability, and also to examine how our current system fails to meet either of these ends.

Opening Questions

The film explores topics that are emotional and potentially triggering to people, so it can be helpful to start your post-film discussion by checking in with your audience using open-ended questions.

1. What is your reaction to the film? How is the film sitting with you? How are you doing?

2. Did the film challenge your assumptions? How?

The Experience of Survivors

In the beginning of the film, we listen to the incredibly brave and tragic survivor impact statement Chanel Miller gave at Brock Turner’s sentencing. Ms. Miller describes the invisible, but brutal harm that Turner’s sexual assault caused. We can only imagine how hard it was for Ms. Miller to deliver this speech in a packed courtroom.

The reality is that most people do not report sexual assault to the police, and they are often left to cope with harm from their assault alone, in silence. According to one estimate, only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are ever reported to the police.

One of the reasons so few people report sexual assault is that actors in the criminal legal system often retraumatize the survivor by repeatedly asking them to provide the most intimate and personal details of the sexual assault. Additionally, few prosecutors or police officers are equipped to engage in trauma-informed approaches and as a result, they question the survivors in an accusatory way unique to sexual assault cases. Many “victim blame” the survivor, suggesting that the survivor “asked for” their assault, especially when alcohol is involved.


  • The criminal legal system – both prosecutors and police – fails to properly investigate sexual assault cases. Some claim this failure is because of a lack of resources, because of case backlogs in rape kit testing, or because of improper training. In 2019, for example, the Austin Police Department had a backlog of over 2,500 rape kits. Others argue that many police and prosecutors simply do not believe survivors of sexual assault.
  • Too often, survivors who report their assaults are subjected to insensitive or inappropriate police interrogation. This can include undue skepticism, dismissive attitudes and conduct, mocking, or even harassment. These behaviors are disproportionately directed towards Black women and people of color.
  • Cross examination is an uncomfortable experience but a necessary part of our criminal legal system. Defense attorneys must question the victims’ recitation of events, unearth inconsistencies in their stories, probe their motives to lie or fabricate, or imply that they misremember certain details. Survivors must recount the most traumatizing aspects of their experience while their words, tone of voice, volume, posture, and demeanor are scrutinized by the jury. This experience can retraumatize survivors as they relive their assault in an uncomfortable or even hostile environment.
  • Across the country, cases abound where prosecutors arrest and lock up survivors of sexual assault who do not want to testify until the trial occurs. The prosecutors claim that it is necessary because the survivors are vital witnesses to the case against a person being prosecuted. The consequences of this practice are devastating for survivors. Not only can they lose jobs, housing, educational opportunities, or custody of their children while held in jail, but they can also face revictimization and violence in jails. This practice shatters survivors’ faith in the criminal legal system, law enforcement, and prosecutors and reduces the likelihood that they will report crimes in the future.

  • Police officers, prosecutors, and judges can be trained on how to conduct trauma-responsive investigations and trauma-informed interviews.
  • Prosecutors should end the practice of jailing or threatening to jail survivors in order to secure their testimony at trial.
  • Jurisdictions should provide long-term counseling for survivors who go through the criminal process.

  • Accountability– The four steps of accountability according to activist Mia Mingus are apology, self-reflection, repair, and behavior change. People sometimes use “accountability” and “punishment” interchangeably, but incarceration is not designed to achieve any of those results.
  • Public acknowledgment/apology
  • Community recognition
  • Future protection of their own safety and the safety of others
  • Restitution 
  • Retribution and punishment (carceral and non-carceral like being fired or kicked out of school)
  • According to Daniel Sered, Executive Director of Common Justice, which has interviewed and worked with hundreds of survivors, survivors differ in what they desire, but they all want one thing. “Some want retribution and revenge; some do not. Some want restitution; for some it is unimportant. Some want apologies; some find them meaningless. Some want to look the person who harmed them in the eyes; some never want to see that person again. Some want to be heard publicly; some want privacy. Some want a space to talk about what happened; some want to be given space to forget. Some care about the transformation of the person who harmed them; some could not care less. And though almost all survivors talk about their own safety, for some that has not been a core concern or priority. But every single survivor we have spoken to has wanted one thing: to know that the person who hurt them would not hurt anyone else.” Danielle Sered, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and A Road to Repair, pp. 29-30 (2019).

  • After someone has been victimized, they often need unanticipated support and resources that are costly to provide. Fewer than one in three survivors of crime receive any help during their recovery, including financial assistance, counseling, medical assistance, or other types of services that support recovery and stability. Trauma recovery centers (TRCs) generally provide free, culturally responsive, trauma-informed therapy and case management for survivors of all violent crime, regardless of the survivor’s cooperation with prosecution, immigration status, personal involvement with the criminal legal system, or whether the person who committed the crime is apprehended. Services offered by TRCs include trauma-informed clinical case management; evidence-based individual, group and family psychotherapy; crisis intervention; medication management; legal advocacy and assistance in filing police reports; and help accessing victim compensation funds. The number and availability of TRCs needs to be greatly expanded and funded.
  • The criminal legal system is not the only institution that can provide survivors with a process to address harm. Other institutions like universities, schools, and community groups can organize their own trauma-informed processes, policies, and systems that promote healing and accountability while centering the survivor.
  • Alternative processes like restorative justice models should be offered in sexual assault cases with survivors’ consent. Restorative justice models bring together people who have caused harm, survivors, and the community to engage in a dialogue about the harm that was caused, repair relationships, and make amends. Participants agree on what the person who caused harm must do to make things right. Restorative justice can take many forms, including peacemaking circles and conferencing models.
  • Providing the survivor with comprehensive services that may include financial support to take time off of work, relocation assistance if the incident occurred in or near the person’s home, long-term, trauma-informed counseling, help navigating the legal system, and access to peer-support groups.
  • Allowing meaningful opportunities for the survivor to be heard in decisions regarding future prevention efforts, such as improved security or prevention programming on school campuses.

Goals of Criminal Sentencing

The next section of this film explores the recall effort that followed Judge Persky’s sentencing of Brock Turner. Because recall proponents were motivated by outrage over what was perceived as a short sentence, both the recall and the film raise critical questions about what it means to hold someone accountable, what a “short” sentence is, and the relationship between sentencing length and rehabilitation.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the developed world, with a per capita incarceration rate of 664 per 100,000 people. Chile, by comparison, has an incarceration rate of 211 per 100,000 people. The United States also has much harsher sentencing laws than other countries do. 83 percent of the world’s life-without-parole population, for example, is in the United States.

There is little evidence that long prison sentences are serving many of the goals of punishment. Indeed, research shows that long prison sentences do not effectively deter people from committing crimes. And long sentences have harmful side effects, removing incentives for people to rehabilitate while in prison and taking them away from their families for so long that successful reentry is difficult.


  • Retribution: the sentence punishes the person and is a means for society to express outrage and avenge the wrongs done.
  • Rehabilitation: the sentence assists the person in changing for the better and provides resources that reduce the likelihood that the person commits another offense at any time in the future. There is, of course, a question about whether the legal system actually accomplishes this goal given prison conditions.
  • Incapacitation: the sentence protects society from the person by removing them for a period of time through incarceration
  • Deterrence: the sentence convinces the person or other people in the community not to commit crimes like this one in the future because they want to avoid a similar sentence.

  • Retribution: The criminal legal system in the United States focuses on punishment for punishment’s sake and relies heavily on incarceration. But these goals can also be accomplished without imposing long sentences.
  • Incapacitation: Long prison sentences serve incapacitative goals, though most incapacitate people for much longer than they pose any actual danger to society.
  • Deterrence: Research shows that long prison sentences do not deter criminal conduct. Deterrence comes from the likelihood of apprehension, not the severity of punishment.
  • Rehabilitation: The criminal legal system largely does not rehabilitate anyone, and incarceration does the opposite – it tends to make people MORE LIKELY to be recriminalized once released from custody. People returning from prison have serious barriers to reentry– because people are largely not paid for prison work, they are released with little to no money, they have difficulty finding housing, and many leave prison with few employable skills.

Community Values

The film goes on to explore the concept of judicial independence. In our legal system, the judge is considered a neutral arbiter who is supposed to dispassionately apply the law to the facts. The recall proponents, however, argued that when sentencing Brock Turner, the judge should have been responsive to “community values.” Under this theory, the judge is simply a reflection of those who live in the city or county or state where the judge presides.


  • Many believe that it is impossible for judges to make decisions that are not influenced by community values because they are part of the community.
  • But there is a difference between being influenced by community norms, and making sentencing decisions directly in response to the whims of the community and its feelings about a particular case. In the latter scenario, the community simply becomes the judge. There’s an argument that the role of a judge is to be dispassionate and take the long view and that even if judges can’t be entirely neutral, they can be more professional and steady.

  • There is little research on the subject, but elected judges are political actors. They therefore may listen to the loudest and most powerful voices in the community, which often means those with money. They also listen to people that they interact with outside of the courtroom: the people they live near, go to church with, and see at their children’s schools. They are also responsive to the media. This means that those with less power, who live in vulnerable communities, may be underrepresented in the judge’s assessment of community values.

  • We can have a more diverse bench, with more people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people who have experienced incarceration, and people who come from different socioeconomic groups serving as judges. We also need more people with diverse job experiences. Right now, the judiciary is largely composed of white former prosecutors.
  • We can increase the judiciary’s interaction with more diverse communities, requiring them to spend time at events and town halls with those in our less empowered neighborhoods.

Media Distortion

The film explores the ways in which the media can fuel inaccurate beliefs about our legal system. Misleading reporting occurred during the Persky recall when The Guardian published a piece accusing Persky of exhibiting bias in sentencing. But the case in question was a plea bargain–in which the prosecution and defense agreed on a sentence–and Judge Persky was not the judge who accepted the final plea or imposed the sentence. Indeed, if one followed only the mainstream media coverage of the case, one would think that Perksy was biased in favor of white defendants. In truth, Perksy’s sentencing record shows no sign of bias and he tended to issue fairly lenient sentences to all defendants. By focusing on the actions of one judge in a single case, the media missed the fact that bias pervades the entire system.

Misleading reporting in the criminal justice realm is not new. Fear drives news sales and clicks more than facts, and so newspaper reporters often run with it. Coverage of a single violent incident may lead people to believe that crime rates are soaring in their community when they are actually down. It can drive racist superpredator myths, and it can lead to demands for pretrial incarceration of people presumed innocent. This coverage, in other words, can impact entire communities in extremely negative and serious ways.


  • Criminal justice coverage often creates fear in the reader by design. Sensationalized stories are more likely to get clicks, so many media outlets choose to report about crime with that in mind.
  • Public fear, which is almost always irrational, drives the creation of reactionary and overly punitive criminal justice policy.
  • Stories about people who have been criminalized often include dehumanizing language that is used to ‘other’ them; irrelevant info about the crime is often included purely for sensationalism.
  • Examples include:
    • The “superpredator” panic around juvenile crime in the 1990s, which led nearly every jurisdiction to institute harsh policies that treated children like adults and sentenced them to lifetimes in prison;
    • The “crack epidemic,” which led to disparities in federal sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, disparities that multiplied racial disparities in the federal prison system; and
    • The panic over people who commit sexual crimes, particularly against children, and the resulting sex offender registry and accompanying requirements that lead to the isolation of people from society, undermining their rehabilitation.

  • The former almost never happens. We hear about the harms of the criminal legal system largely in the context of innocent people who were wrongfully imprisoned. It is rare to find any media coverage of the harms that befall the millions of people who were at fault and did commit crimes. Many are not dangerous. Many are elderly. And for all, incarcerating them makes them more likely to be recriminalized upon release.
  • Reporters inaccurately use the terms “violent” and “non-violent” to describe the person accused or convicted, rather than the crime itself. People convicted of violent crimes actually have lower recidivism rates than those convicted of other crimes. And the legal classification of “violent” itself is broader than the common understanding of that term.
  • The American idea of deservedness, largely perpetuated by media coverage of crime, ignores the reality that people caught up in the criminal legal system have also experienced trauma and harm.

  • It could avoid sensationalized coverage of isolated incidents. When crimes of public interest are covered, it would be helpful if media outlets pointed out how rare they actually are, or that it is usually the case that the victim and the person who committed the crimes knew each other.
  • Criminal justice reporting needs FACTS. Often reporters just quote the police, or politicians, about their opinion of what is driving crime or how society should address it. There is a huge body of research on what works and what doesn’t that is rarely incorporated into criminal justice reporting.
  • Media should devote more coverage to alternatives to incarceration and explore how they impose consequences, what the goal is, and how they produce better public safety outcomes.

Systemic Racism

There is no question that the criminal legal system is racist. In the US, Black Americans are imprisoned in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of white Americans. The NAACP found that “[o]ne out of every three Black boys born today can expect to be sentenced to prison, compared to 1 out 6 Latino boys; one out of 17 white boys.”  How you solve that problem, however, is a matter of hot debate. In the Brock Turner case, many people insisted he should have gotten a harsher sentence, and that he only received probation because he was white. No one pushing for the recall, however, demanded that people of color receive less harsh sentences to match Brock Turner’s sentence. The recall proponents argued for ratcheting up of punishment, in other words, rather than a leveling down.


  • The response to this case, which was largely outrage over a lenient sentence, leads people to favor harsher punishment across the board.
  • Because of the inherent racism in our criminal legal system, harsh punishment inevitably falls disproportionately on low income and people of color.

  • Recallers could have demanded that everyone receive an opportunity at probation or a short jail sentence, unless the person poses a present physical threat to the community. They could have demanded that all superior court judges put forth the same time and effort to look at the individual, their familial and community ties, and the potential negative consequences of a lengthy prison sentence as Judge Persky did before imposing the sentence.
  • Recallers could have demanded that the state increase funding for trauma support for victims of sexual assault.
  • Recallers could have demanded that the state revise the sentencing guidelines so that it did not reflect the over-policing of people of color. Criminal sentencing, for example, takes into account prior arrests and convictions, but people of color are more likely to have these because their communities are overpoliced and overcharged.

Carceral Feminism

Many feminists are progressive on a range of criminal justice issues except for sexual violence. This is in part because our society has historically treated certain types of sexual violence and violence against women as non-criminal. Domestic violence and marital rape went unpunished, and powerful men inflicted harm on countless women for years without any consequences. But there is also a history of extreme punishment and lynching of Black men for mere accusations of sexual violence against white women. The entangled history of race and sexual violence in this country begs an intersectional analysis and provides an opportunity to create new ways of addressing harm without compounding systemic oppression on the basis of gender or race.

Feminists are right to be upset about society discounting or ignoring violence against women. But the supporters of the recall carried signs accusing  Judge Persky of “legalizing rape,” when he issued a sentence that was within the law.


  • The majority of people entangled in the criminal legal system do not look like Brock Turner. Instead, they are predominantly low income and/or people of color. When feminists advocate for a lengthy sentence in an individual case, the inevitable result is longer sentences for those who are already overrepresented in jails and prisons.
  • People grow and change over time. We know this from our own experiences and from research. When we think that prison or lengthy sentences are required in order for someone to be held accountable, we take away people’s ability to grow into thriving members of their community.
  • We also know that some survivors do not want a prison sentence for their abusers. But because long prison sentences are currently the favored recourse, we tend to discount their wishes, which may lead to more trauma.

  • We detail a number of ways to support survivors in question #4 above.
  • Additionally, a large body of research has concluded that offering cognitive behavioral therapy-based treatment (CBT) to people accused of sexual offenses reduces the risk they will commit another sex offense. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that uses various strategies to change a person’s thinking patterns. Feminist groups should advocate for comprehensive and tailored programming available for people adjudicated guilty of serious sexual offenses.
  • Demand that college campuses engage in proactive sexual violence prevention efforts such as funding well-run bystander intervention programs like Green Dot or Bringing in the Bystander. These programs teach students how to recognize high-risk situations, understand the barriers that might keep them from intervening in a situation of sexual violence, and overcome those barriers to stop a potential assault.

Knee-Jerk Reactions 


The film points out the Persky recall led to judges imposing harsher sentences across the board. Sentences increased by 30%, for example, in the six counties studied. As previously discussed, a focus on one case can often lead to an expansion of the criminal legal system. And any increase in punishment will magnify all of the preexisting racial disparities in the system. Black and brown people are arrested at much higher rates than white people, and therefore, a push toward more incarceration will likely disproportionately harm those communities.

There is a risk that this pattern of overcorrection will occur again. A series of high profile smash-and-grabs from expensive retail stores, for example, has people calling for harsher punishments for retail theft across California, a result that will probably not reduce thefts but will put more people in prison for longer. A rise in the murder rate has people clamoring for harsher sentences for gun possession, a solution that will not reduce violent crime, and will likely be enforced disproportionately against Black and brown people. The push to pass hate crime legislation in more states only leads to higher rates of incarceration and longer, enhanced sentences, an effect that may be felt disproportionately by those groups who are already over incarcerated.


  • Public defenders, scholars, and advocates predicted that the recall campaign would lead to higher sentences, including for people who did not look like Brock Turner.

  • The study, which examined sentencing outcomes in six California counties following the announcement of the recall campaign, proved them right. It found an increase of over 30% in sentence length in the 45 days following the announcement of the recall.

  • In total, judges gave between 88 and 403 years of additional incarceration in those 45 days in the six counties for which the authors had data. The authors estimate the total impact across all counties in California is more than five times as high (between 440 and 2442 years).

  • Importantly, the study’s authors controlled for whether these increases were driven by harsher recommendations by prosecutors through plea bargains, and it concluded that they were not.

  • The authors also examined whether the “shock” in increased sentence length could correlate to some other societal change. The authors conducted a comparative data analysis with Washington state, where judges are also elected in nonpartisan elections, but where judges are not subject to recall. The study did not find a similar increase in sentences.

  • The study also determined that the increase in sentencing was most pronounced for white defendants. The authors, however, noted that Black defendants are already subject to harsher charging practices – in other words, prosecutors charge Black people with more serious offenses for similar conduct than White people– and therefore, also harsher sentences writ large. The recall’s increases did nothing to mitigate preexisting, longer-term racial disparities in the justice system.

  • Think through demands for action. Ask why advocates are requesting specific demands as well as what will result if those demands are met.
  • Talk to experts about what consequences may result. Public defenders in California, for example, were well aware that the Persky recall would adversely impact people of color.
  • Pursue advocacy outside the box. Think about ways that survivors of trauma and violence can be best served by the community rather than through the criminal legal system.

  • Leaders of any advocacy movement must try to look for and predict unintended consequences.
  • We, as constituents, are responsible for holding our policymakers accountable for knee-jerk carceral responses to isolated incidents.

Reimagining Justice

The film ends by asking a question that it does not answer. After this discussion, are you better poised to answer it?

22. How can we imagine a form of justice that does not perpetuate the harms of mass incarceration?




Additional Material:

  • Screening Toolkit:  Use this toolkit to guide you through the entire process of organizing a screening, from selecting a venue, to promoting your event, to leading a successful discussion, to following up with your audience. It provides a checklist for in-person events and one for virtual events.
  • Action Plan:  The film can evoke powerful feelings in people and viewers may find themselves looking for a way to channel that energy. This guide provides concrete ideas for getting involved in changing policy around the topics explored in the film.
  • Additional Resources:  Use this guide as a starting point for further learning on the topics explored in the film. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it contains articles, books, films, and podcasts that have been helpful and meaningful to our team.