When Brock Turner was handed down a sentence of just six months in prison for a sexual assault case that occurred on the Stanford University campus in 2015, a collective outrage at the light sentence eventually led to a successful recall campaign against the judge who decided the case, Aaron Persky. Many activists, especially those who decried a wealthy white man such as Turner punished so lightly, cheered—at least, at first. The fallout from Persky’s recall has, paradoxically, led to even harsher sentences handed down throughout California, particularly to people of color.
This moral puzzle is the subject of “The Recall: Reframed,” a short documentary from Rebecca Richman Cohen (“Untouchable”) which has made the festival circuit and premiere this month on MSNBC.
“It seemed like a real opportunity for us because I think the mainstream media by and large got this story wrong, and didn’t give it the nuance that it needed and deserved,” Cohen said recently on a phone call.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by the police in 2020, questions of what justice looked like were ripe for reexamining, including in the Persky recall situation, Cohen told me that it was a chance to not just “see seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence [not] as something that had to stand in opposition to the movement [against] mass incarceration, but to be able to reframe it in a way that we could look holistically to see if they could both act together.”
Indeed, the activists who campaigned for Persky’s ouster from the bench were well-intentioned, especially given that Turner received a sentence that was shocking in how lenient it was. What the experts interviewed in “The Recall: Reframed” say is nonetheless that Persky followed the sentencing guidelines. Removing him from his judgeship only made racial disparities in sentencing in California worse than before.
“Public defenders and law professors who spoke out at the time said the effect of the recall isn’t going to be to combat white privilege, the effect will be that sentencing increases,” Cohen said. “And because of the systemic biases that are baked into the criminal legal system, those will disproportionately fall on the people you’re claiming to serve.”
And recalling a judge for one sentence viewed as not harsh enough won’t reduce those racial sentencing disparities. Rather, at a time when justice reform is on so many people’s minds, it will drive up the length of sentences, as the experts in “The Recall: Reframed” say in the film.
“I really do believe that the recall was supported by very well-intentioned people who were angry about all of the right things, who are angry at the things that I’m angry about,” said Cohen, who is also a lawyer and instructor at Harvard. “[They] were angry about the disparity in sentencing between a white privileged college kid and low-income and people of color, and desperately wanted to change that.”
Furthermore, the recall campaign against Persky focused time, resources and energy away from discussions about sentencing reform and better tailoring sentences to specific crimes rather than bowing to entrenched minimum sentencing guidelines.
“I think it also makes it harder to have the critical conversation we need to have, which is what is justice for survivors?” Cohen said. “Because I think the effect of the recall was to equate long prison sentences with justice.”
Cohen says she and her producers are partnering with various organizations working to end sexual violence and mass incarceration. She believes the question of justice needs to focus more on issues of proper accountability for people who have harmed another person, and what does justice look like for those who have been wronged.
“What we’ve learned from the recall is that recalling a judge with a relatively lenient pattern of sentencing, and asking for more punitive sentences, isn’t going to reduce sentences for everyone else, it’s going to drive it up,” Cohen said. “There needs to be a much deeper and more thoughtful conversation than merely equating justice with long prison sentences.”
She has already screened her film at various festivals and on campuses as well as in her own classroom. This moves the conversation along, she believes, and forces people to see the nuance of this issue, one that’s not simply A or B.
“We do find in these screenings that there is sometimes some cognitive dissonance that people experience, particularly people who had supported the recall on racial justice grounds because they were angry about white privilege,” she said. “And to accept that the recall was a disservice to those goals is a hard thing, and I think really unsettled people.
“But when people look at the facts…when people look at what we know, then I think people are able to step back and reframe, and take part in the conversation about what justice looks like.”
The United States remains the most incarcerated country in the world, and Cohen said this will only increase in the wake of the recall campaign. Sentences will only get longer, and the racial disparities will increase. Nevertheless, the filmmaker remains cautiously optimistic.
“I do think that out of the tragedy of Geroge Floyd’s murder, there was this beautiful thing that happened, which is [that] a shift in our understanding of the harms of mass incarceration really opened the door to reconsider our policies and our politics,” Cohen said. “And it is slower and it is harder than I’d like it to be, but I don’t think this country would have been ready for this film in 2019. I think it is because of the work of those activists, who put their bodies in the streets in 2020, that we get to have harder and more nuanced conversations now.”
Because “The Recall: Reframed” is a short documentary, Cohen is working on two other documentaries of similar length, one about intimate partner violence and another on sex work. In the meantime she wants to ensure that this film sparks the types of conversations she knows it can.
“The hope is to create a trilogy of three short films […] that address similar concepts that help us step back and think critically about a brand of feminism that equates justice with long prison sentences.” She added that such change will hopefully move the needle “to imagine other ways that we can find justice” (featured image: still from “The Recall: Reframed”).
“The Recall: Reframed” aired on MSNBC on March 19th and has been streaming on Peaccock since March 20th.