Sentencing Sex Offenders is Only the First Step in Making Change

By Liz Hay

Elm Staff Writer

On Sept. 25, Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in Pennsylvania state prison for the sexual assault of Andrea Constand 14 years ago.

Though many women came forward with accusations against Cosby, Constand was the only one whose claims fell within the statute of limitations. Cosby, “America’s dad,” had been a beloved figure of American media until these allegations came to light.

This sentencing has been hailed as a major victory for the #MeToo movement, which seeks justice and empowerment for survivors of sexual assault and abuse.

The Cosby trial is a signal that American culture is finally shifting toward public condemnation of acts previously swept under the rug, but there is work yet to be done. One unaddressed issue is the ideological gap in the meaning of justice in sexual assault trials like Cosby’s.

The purpose of the justice system can be viewed with an emphasis on one of two major values: rehabilitation or punishment. If you believe that it ought to work as a solely punitive organ of society, then Cosby’s sentencing is a successful fulfillment of that purpose.

The criminal justice system proved with the Cosby trial that it can overcome decades of sexism, power politics, and stigma to hand down a just punishment. However, is punishment enough, or should justice entail something more?

Viewing justice as rehabilitating serves to bring criminals back into society as better people, therefore making society better as a whole. Sex offenders, especially elderly, high-profile ones, are a challenge for this viewpoint. When Cosby finishes his sentence and is released, will he have meaningfully changed? Probably not, but the very name of the prison he is housed in, the Phoenix State Correctional Institution, implies that society holds out hope for a “correction” of behavior.

It’s great that there is finally an environment where voices like Constand’s can be heard and legitimized. The nature of decades-old allegations, though, is that the accused has probably aged past a point where meaningful character change is possible.

Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey — punitive action has been taken against them, but they haven’t been made better people. If we aim to not only punish, but also rehabilitate criminals, then society will have to seriously consider measures to fill in this gap between the values and the reality of justice for sexual misconduct.

This isn’t an issue that any one person can have the answer to. Cosby’s sentencing is hopefully only the first in a new age of justice for the victims of sexual assault, but it also reveals the need for a dialogue around the gaping hole in the conventional morality of justice.

Sex offenders can’t be locked up for life and forgotten about; a truly successful prison system must integrate criminals back into society to show that change is possible. The system that exists is not adequate for filling that role in every case, and it is up to the next generation of citizens to consider the best way to realign the ideals of rehabilitation with the modern realities of our justice system.

One thought on “Sentencing Sex Offenders is Only the First Step in Making Change

  1. Good article Liz!

    You could argue a “rational being” would not risk the sentencing penalty again, so the penalty itself promotes behavior modification.

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