It is the nature of character assassination scandals, and a consequence of their frequency, that after a while they are forgotten by all except the people whose lives were destroyed by them. Such was the fate of Michelle Dauber’s cruel and idiotic crusade against Judge Aaron Persky in the aftermath of the Brock Turner scandal, which swept a lot of ill-informed progressive punitives with pitchforks and led to the destruction of his judicial career (and later, the destruction of his livelihood as a tennis coach.)
For all the shrill shrieking about “privilege”, pretty much every criminal justice academic I respect in the Bay Area warned at the time that recalling judges for lenient sentencing (especially, as in this case, following the probation recommendation) would make punishment harsher and much worse for everyone–especially for people who looked and lived nothing like Brock Turner. I was one of the first signatories and vividly remember shouting this from the rooftops, as well as seeing it as part of an appalling pattern of the left eating its own with no rhyme or reason.
As everyone worth their salt predicted, the recall did have an effect on criminal punishment in Santa Clara county: it made it harsher. As my colleagues Sanford Gordon and Sidak Yntiso found:
Using disposition data from six California counties and arrest records for a subset of defendants, we find a large, discontinuous increase in sentencing severity associated with the recall campaign’s announcement. Additional tests suggest that the observed shift may be attributed to changes in judicial preferences over sentencing and not strategic adjustment by prosecutors. We also demonstrate that the heterogeneous effects of the announcement did not mitigate preexisting racial disparities. Our findings are the first to document the incentive effects of recall and suggest that targeted political campaigns may have far-reaching, unintended consequences.Sanford C. Gordon and Sidak Yntiso, Incentive Effects of Recall Elections: Evidence from Criminal Sentencing in California Courts, The Journal of Politics 84:4 (2022), 1947-1962
In other words: the fearless, plucky lefties who led this hysterical campaign can take pride in the fact that their relentless persecution of Persky empowered and enhanced carceral repression across the board, not necessarily making a dent in prevention/accountability for sex crimes, and harming precisely the people without “privilege” that they presumably sought to protect with this destructive campaign.
Why am I revisiting this? For two reasons. First, because I don’t want us to forget that these sorts of actions have consequences. I know that many on the left are already sickened by years of ugly, disastrous infighting. As Freddie DeBoer recently wrote:
I certainly would not say that the age of canceling is over. There will be public scandals to come; people will suffer major career and social consequences because of public anger. Sometimes they’ll deserve it. And maybe this is just a lull and the same old songs will get sung again and again.
But at this stage I find it hard to deny that the sense of palpable fear so many operated under, the feeling that the prosecutors held all the cards, appears to be in terminal decline. People just aren’t afraid in the same way anymore. The mob doesn’t have the momentum. The big bad wolf has lost his teeth. I suspect this is for a few key reasons – the fact that all of that endless raging did precisely nothing to make the world more just, for one. The growing understanding that the human species is flawed by nature and that no one can match those standards, for another. But mostly, I think it’s the dynamic I’ve been predicting for a long time: you can only bang the gong so many times. Everybody’s receptors all got blown out. Outrage is a finite resource. People can’t maintain permanent offense forever. Most of us can’t, anyway. You can only tense a muscle for so long.
Thing is, while we are tiring of the phenomenon, the people whose lives and reputations were laid to waste are going to have to live with the consequences of these witch hunts for a long time. Judge Persky, I think of you and am so sorry for the horror that you went through.
The second reason is that an excellent, short documentary about the poisonous effect of the recall campaign is out, and until September you can watch The Recall: Reframed for free: