steubenville

Trigger warning: This post alludes to a graphic sexual assault that may be upsetting to survivors.

For better or worse, the name of this Ohio town, which used to be associated with the high school football team that was its pride and glory, will likely become synonymous with “teenage gang rape,” much as Abu Ghraib has become synonymous with “torture and prisoner abuse.” Ironically, in Steubenville the former — a cult of football player worship that is all too common in the United States — played a huge role in the latter — an atmosphere in which multiple athletes assaulted a classmate too drunk to consent.

Today the two boys who committed the assault, a six-hour ordeal of which the survivor has no memory but which was extensively documented on social media, were convicted of rape. The 17-year-old will serve at least two years in the state juvenile system; the 16-year-old, at least one year. It’s possible that they will be incarcerated until they are 24 and 21, respectively. Extension of the sentences is at the discretion of the state’s Department of Youth Services.

I felt relief when I heard about the conviction. From the event all the way through the trial, it seemed — at least from my limited vantage point, through local and national media — that the town was generally rallying around “their boys” and were blaming the victim, as people are so wont to do. Indeed, many of their classmates hurriedly deleted videos of and text messages about the assault when the boys realized that, wow, people are kind of upset about this and we might have done something wrong. Two of the victim’s former friends testified that she is often intoxicated at parties and “lies about things.” There was much hand-wringing over the boys’ futures, football and otherwise. I feared that the circling of the wagons around the perpetrators would be successful.

jailed rapists

jailed rapists (source: RAINN)

I also felt that the punishments were at least to some extent appropriate, though I can’t help but hope that the punishments end up on the longer end of the possibilities (more on that below). I may be in the minority in this sentiment, judging by a (highly unscientific) review of today’s Facebook posts about the verdict. A friend of a friend expressed surprised outrage that rape is not punishable by 25 years to life. To which I want to burst out laughing.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), accounting for unreported rapes, only about 3% of rapists ever spend time in jail. And according to the U.S. Department of Justice, as of 1992, the average sentence for rapists was just shy of 12 years, with average actual time served about five-and-a-half years. (The current arrest rate for rape, about 25%, has remained unchanged since the 1970s, so there’s little reason to believe that sentences have changed either.) To say that rape is rarely punished via the criminal justice system is an understatement.

I spent seven years in D.C. volunteering at the local rape crisis center. I have little sympathy for rapists.

I also spent the same amount of time working and volunteering for drug policy reform organizations. I have little confidence in the criminal justice system.

And indeed, my experience working with survivors of sexual assault taught me the same lesson: The criminal justice system simply doesn’t do what we hope it does.

This semester I’m taking “Foundations of Prison Ministry” at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. To whatever small extent I wasn’t before, I am now thoroughly horrified at our criminal justice system. I can’t condone caging human beings for inordinate amounts of time. I have no trust that we are putting away the “right” people. And I am certain that we’re not rehabilitating anyone.

Sidebar: I just wrote 10 pages for my class midterm about why the criminal justice system is abominable — and I barely scratched the surface in so doing — so I am obviously not able to do it justice (heh) in this post. For a good primer, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. And don’t tell me you don’t have time to read a whole book. As a citizen of this nation, you don’t have time not to read it! /rant

Ultimately, what I am saying is that I am divided. I don’t think we should be locking kids up for long periods of time (and never for life). And the criminals in this case are kids. Stupid, self-entitled, shameless, sadistic scum. But kids nonetheless. (The New York Times reported that the boy sentenced to at least one year told his lawyer upon hearing the decision, “My life is over.” To my mind there’s no clearer indication of the immaturity at work here. And I still want to scream at him about the life of the girl he assaulted.) These kids merit punishment. So in our very limited criminal justice system arsenal, I am forced to admit that some jail time seems like the best option.

But I concede this knowing that whatever good these boys will learn over the next year, two years, or five years, they will find in spite of their incarceration, and not because of it. More than likely, they’ll come out more desensitized than they went in. They’re for damn sure not going to learn in juvenile how to be men in a way different from that which rape culture promotes. And shouldn’t that be our goal?

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