The Stanford Rapist: Was Individualized Justice Justified?

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The Stanford Rapist: Was Individualized Justice Justified?

The sentencing of a Stanford University student guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman has been met with an outpouring of disbelief across the nation. The extremely low sentence of six months—for a rape conviction—in actuality will be further reduced to four months for good behavior, which begs the following, conflicting questions:

  • Should there be specified guidelines and minimum sentences for specific crimes that judges must adhere to; or
  • Given that we have suggested sentences, should judges have the latitude to deviate from the guidelines?

If latitude is allowed, then does this create the potential for individualized punishments? And if so, is that ethical?

The Ideology of Punishment in the Criminal Justice System

The rationales used for incarceration provide a framework for understanding sentencing, and perhaps, why the judge decided to give the Stanford student a lenient, individualized sentence.

Currently, there are four justifications for mandating a prison sentence:

  • Deterrence;
  • Incapacitation;
  • Rehabilitation; and
  • Retribution (“just desserts”).


As the name suggests, the theory of deterrence posits that by increasing the risk of getting caught and punished, members of society will not commit crimes. For example, the theory assumes that if a perpetrator knows the act of rape carries a long jail sentence, then the likelihood of the crime will decrease. While this theory is logical, it does not always work.

Supposing that the sentence had been much steeper in the case of the Stanford student, it is still unlikely that someone in a similar situation, who is drunk and partying, would think to themselves, “I’m not going to rape this unconscious woman because three years ago somebody else got 20 years in prison for doing it.”


The incapacitation model does not require any assumptions about the criminal’s rationale or the root causes of the criminal’s behavior. All that matters is the knowledge that physical restraints and incarceration prevent the commission of further crimes against society during the duration of the sentence.

In other words, while the perpetrator is imprisoned, he or she is unable to commit any other crimes.

Many offenders are self-aware enough to know that if they remain free, they will commit a repeat offense. In the Stanford student’s case, the judge had to determine whether prison was necessary in order to keep him from committing other crimes.


The theory behind rehabilitation assumes that the structural defects in society—poverty, racial discrimination, lack of employment—cause crime. According to this model, the goal of the criminal justice system is to mitigate or eliminate these harmful forces and provide the convicted with rehabilitation services rather than punishment.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of prisons do not offer services that develop life skills that will help inmates thrive on the outside. Even if the appropriate social services were put into place, the fact remains: an ex-convict will have a very difficult time procuring employment.


Although the United States justice system does not condone the concept of an eye for an eye, the applicability of retribution allows for the moral gravity of the offense to validate the punishment. In essence, the idea is that minor crimes should receive more lenient punishments, and more serious crimes should receive harsher punishments, including incarceration.

In an ideal society, people who commit murder, rape, and other serious crimes would receive more severe punishments than someone who stole candy from a store; however, that is not the way the world is working nowadays. 

People who commit white-collar crimes, like stealing money, are sentenced to 20 years in prison whereas, a convicted rapist received a six-month sentence.

What Do We Make Of The Stanford Student’s Sentence?

The original six-month sentence does not fit within these four justifications for incarceration; the judge determined that this student was entitled to individual justice.

For an unknown reason, the judge decided that it would be in the best interest of a convicted rapist, and his victim, to hand down an incredibly lenient sentence as opposed to a retributory sentence.

Right or wrong, it was a very difficult thing for the judge to declare such a light punishment.

In our civilized society, we have decided to entrust certain people, including judges, to determine how our criminals are punished; it is not something that the people can directly decide.

Do you agree with the judge’s sentence? Do you think that the Stanford student deserved individual justice? To discuss your opinions and thoughts, you better call Saul at (212) 363-7701!

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