Does Sending Teen Rapists to Prison Make the Problem Worse?


The following article originally appeared at Jezebel.

By now we're all painfully aware that our news media are apparently incapable of sensitivity when reporting on the Steubenville rape verdict. The undercurrent of a lot of the coverage has been that Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays are not the type of people we should put in prison, on account of their good grades and "promising futures." It'd be so much easier if Richmond and Mays were literal piles of garbage fashioned into human form, glued together with feces, and covered in menacing face tattoos. Like real criminals.

The response to the verdict itself has been varied, but some wondered why Richmond and Mays were not tried as adults, or thought they should have faced a harsher penalty than at least one year in juvenile detention. It's not easy for me to reconcile my own feelings on this. Rape and sexual assault are tools of oppression in a society that devalues women's experiences. It goes without saying that this is a feminist issue. But mass incarceration is a feminist issue, too, because it exacerbates rape culture — prisoners are exposed to sexual violence and become aggressive actors in an environment that values hyper-masculinity. So when we call for "harsher penalties" or for more juveniles to enter the adult prison system, what are we asking for? Is the best way to dismantle rape culture through the criminal justice system? (To be fair, the criminal justice system is great at some things, like locking up every single black person. For profit.)

The law plays a role in perpetuating rape culture by under-penalizing crimes that disproportionately affect women (like sexual assault or domestic violence) and over-penalizing non-violent offenses (like all that sweet drug trafficking your granny enjoys so much). Unlike the victim in the Steubenville case, most rapes go unreported. Also unlike Steubenville, most accused rapists walk — only about 3 out of 100 reported rapes result in an actual conviction. If convicted, the average sentence for committing a sex crime, while varied, is about 8 to 9 years, with offenders serving an average of 5 years of their sentence.

The lack of sexual assault convictions is perplexing, because putting people in jail is like, America's top hobby! We're incarcerating a lot of people (especially nonwhite people!), but maybe not so much when they're hurting women (especially nonwhite women!).

Richmond and Mays will spend at least one year in a juvenile detention center somewhere in Ohio. Mays received a sentence of an extra year because he distributed photographs of his under-aged victim. They could be held in juvie until they're 21 years old, but as tempers die down and the internet stops giving a shit about Steubenville (there may be a new puppy video by then), who knows what the judge will do a year from now?

It may seem unfair to watch as Richmond and Mays spend the next year in a center that, I don't know, probably has an inspirational mural and one of those posters that says "TEAMWORK," or whatever. (Or, you know. Maybe not.) After what they did to their young victim, juvenile detention may seem like an unsatisfying punishment — they should have to go to adult prison, right?

Prisons in the United States are a haven for sexual violence. The same gender hierarchies that we feminists fight on the outside are aggravated in prison. Prisoners often adopt hyper-masculine attitudes and behaviors as a survival strategy. Those who do not are susceptible to sexual violence and assault. Men who display any level of traditionally "feminine" behaviors are often "sold" into the prison sex trade. Upon a prisoner's release, the potential absolutely exists for these same behaviors to manifest in society at large.

How does this dismantle rape culture? How could it? Although punishment absolutely validates the victim's experience, and empowers other women to come forward, we must look beyond punishment to release, too. Sending teenaged rapists like Richmond and Mays to adult prison does not benefit women. In fact, it puts us at risk if, upon release, they reestablish their prison environment on the outside. Part of caring about victims is attempting to prevent future victimization, too. But I'm not convinced our justice system in its current form is equipped to do that for Richmond, Mays, or any juvenile offender. Prison only aggravates and entrenches rape culture.

So, instead of adult prison, Richmond and Mays are heading to the aforementioned juvenile facility. When juvenile programs are at their best, they're providing holistic services to all juvenile offenders. For what it's worth, the Division of Youth Services in Ohio does offer rehabilitative services tailored to juvenile sex offenders in their custody. DYS insists these services have had a positive impact on statewide juvenile sex offense statistics. Rehabilitation for juvenile offenderscan work. And it's not rape apologia to suggest that the age of the offender matters when it comes to punishment. There's a reason why attorneys for juvenile defenders make a lot of the same arguments that attorneys for the developmentally disabled do with respect to cognitive function. Teenage brains just do not process action/consequence in the same way adult brains do. This doesn't give Richmond and Mays a free pass to do whatever they want. It simply acknowledges the very good science behind the idea that teenaged dingalings can be rehabilitated.

Think about it this way: what if there were roving bands of sentient knives that sometimes went around slicing people. Would we send them to a knife-sharpening factory as punishment? Would that protect our pepperonis? This is a very stupid metaphor for a very serious problem, but without rehab for juvenile offenders, we run the risk of turning teenaged sentient knives into adult sentient knives.

Who knows whether or not Richmond or Mays will be receptive to rehabilitation while in detention. Mays is a noted dope who apparently has no functional understanding of what rape even is. It is highly problematic that the initial reaction of these two has been overwhelmingly selfish and full of disregard as to the effect of their actions on their victim ("My life is over," said Richmond). Punishment must, of course, remain an integral part of any strategy to combat sexual assault in this country — but we need an age-appropriate rehabilitative and therapeutic component to detention also. The result, if we don't, is more victimization.

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