Posted on Friday, October 12th, 2012 at 12:12 am
Author: Kristin Rawls
Former Penn State assistant football coach and serial child rapist Jerry Sandusky was sentenced yesterday by a judge in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania to between 30 and 60 years in prison. I don’t often find myself on the side of harsher prison sentencing, but this is one of those times at which I do.
Let’s break it down a bit: Sandusky was convicted back in June on 45 counts of child sexual abuse. The convictions included: nine counts involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, six counts indecent assault, one count criminal attempt to commit sexual assault, nine counts unlawful contact with minors, ten counts corruption of a minor and ten counts endangering the welfare of children. In total, he was found guilty of 25 felonies – including 14 first-degree felonies – and 19 misdemeanors involving ten different boys over a span of at least fifteen years. Together, these convictions resulted up to in a 442 year sentence.
But Sandusky only got 30 to 60. He’ll be 98 years old at that 30 year mark when he becomes eligible for parole. And yes, it does seem likely that he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison, as the judge acknowledged, but this is no foregone conclusion. Who’s to say he couldn’t live another ten years after he’s released? And who’s to say he couldn’t possibly continue to prey on more children just because he’s old? Just a few days ago on October 4, a 93-year old Australian man was arrested in Thailand for the rape of four girls. Will Jerry Sandusky be as dangerous at 98 as he is now? Of course not. But is that really enough?
And how is this justice for the victims? The oldest of the ten victims who came forward will be just 57 in 30 years, and the youngest 47. If Sandusky lives to 98, each of the victims will be forced to grapple with the prospect of their abuser walking free right there in State College. Why? Why would a judge in a state with a judiciary as punitive as that in Pennsylvania leave this possibility open? Why should any of the victims have to think about going through this all over again in middle age? In a statement released yesterday, the man known in the media as Victim 1 said, “I just wanted a childhood like everyone else… I’ve been looking over my shoulder for a long time.” If, God forbid, Jerry Sandusky lives to the age of 98, Victim 1 may again have to start looking over his shoulder.
Not that they wouldn’t do that at some level anyway. Shortly before his hearing, Sandusky blamed his victims in a sound-bite that has since gone viral: “A young man who was dramatic, a veteran accuser, and always sought attention, started everything… He was joined by a well-orchestrated effort of the media, investigators, the system, Penn State, psychologists, civil attorneys and other accusers. They won.” It’s worth remembering here that it has taken so long to put Sandusky behind bars in part because he preyed on poor children with difficult home lives. Everything had been stacked against them from the start. To them, rants about an “attention-seeker” who is a “veteran accuser” may not sound like the mad ramblings most of us heard. They may sound like labels these boys heard bandied about by teachers and social workers and foster parents and every other manner of adult they encountered from early childhood.
A psychopath like Sandusky must have known this. Of course he wanted to give a public statement – it may well be his last chance to publicly punch back at his victims. And after a lifetime of being called “dramatic” or attention-seeking, how many of these boys are honestly going to feel like they don’t have to watch their backs now? What else might Sandusky say? Could he ever come up with something to say that would discredit them once and for all? Why would the whole world suddenly take them seriously if it never had before? Why would everyone suddenly empathize with them when it had always been most concerned with preserving their silence? If Sandusky the master manipulator had anything left by the time he delivered that statement, it was surely the words. No, those young men did not hear what the rest of us heard that day. They heard the official institutional stories of their lives: Emotionally unstable, “veteran accuser,” liar, delusional, criminal.
Those kinds of kids, now young men, rarely get their day in court. Ours is a justice system that has well-documented biases against rape survivors and poor people. So, despite everything – from the widespread hatred of Jerry Sandusky to the multiple eyewitness accounts to conviction and sentencing – wouldn’t you always wonder if it could all fall apart one day?
If anyone is entitled to knowing that their attacker will never ever be able to reach them or harm them again, it’s child abuse victims like these. This is a man who should never be afforded a public platform and who should never ever have a prayer of getting out. Not because Nancy Grace feels so strongly about the fact that Sandusky deserves a few centuries’ worth of punishment (and perhaps she’s right this time.), but because he is a dangerous repeat offender who will abuse again given half the chance. We know this to be true because that’s precisely what he did when given that opportunity to make a statement.
Sandusky’s crimes were, of course, adjudicated in a system that undervalues children of no means from troubled homes, as well as a system that privileges prominent white men like Sandusky himself and treats rape victims in general with suspicion and mistrust. For years, Pennsylvania’s judiciary has been a top offender in the disproportionate incarceration of people of color. Its three-strikes law means that judges may give life without parole sentences to people convicted of three violent crimes. But none of the crimes need be as serious as anything Sandusky did – that is, you can get life without parole in Pennsylvania for three attempted burglary convictions in which no one gets hurt. Why should Sandusky get any less?
Critics will be quick to remind me that we won’t change the system in a transformative way by advocating for the expansion of the prison industrial complex. This is of course why I’m not advocating for the expansion of the prison industrial complex. I am, however, arguing that Jerry Sandusky should have received more prison time. In fact, I think life without parole is not a bad idea for any repeat sexual offender, given such high rates of recidivism.
Our criminal justice system has dire problems, yes: From the mass incarceration of young black men to the prevalence of prison rape to the victim-blaming that takes place any time a rapist stands trial. These problems cannot be solved by taking a pure, context-free stance against incarceration as such, or by treating all harsh sentences as symptoms of systemic pathology. It is not a betrayal of the prison reform movement to argue that one very dangerous man – and others like him – pose threats to public safety on the outside and should not ever walk free.
Jerry Sandusky will almost certainly die in prison, but then again, there is always a chance that he might not. And that slim chance that he isn’t going away for good is more than the victims or the public should have to bear. So, yes, Sandusky’s prison sentence was too light. But it’s something substantial, at least – it’s certainly more justice than those boys ever thought would be handed down in those years of being victimized by the beloved assistant football coach. That’s not enough. There can’t ever be enough, but it’s something.
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