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In 2016, I wrote an op-ed for this publication on the high-profile sexual assault committed by Brock Turner, who was rightfully convicted in March 2016.
I wrote that judges should consider the humanity of everyone involved and aim for accountability and rehabilitation in sentencing. I also expressed concern that a large-scale ratcheting-up of sentences would disproportionately impact communities far less privileged than Mr. Turner, and ultimately result in excessive prison terms for poor people of color.
Five years later, I stand by those fundamental ideas. But I also acknowledge that I failed to step out of my role as a public defender and caused further pain by not considering the experiences of survivors on the other side of the courtroom. I apologize for the insensitivity of my words and I take full responsibility for them. I do not think or speak in the same terms today.
As a proponent of restorative justice, I know that taking responsibility means doing the work to learn and to grow from that experience. This is why I have built relationships and had meaningful discussions with all stakeholders in the criminal legal system, including survivors of sexual assault and other violent crimes. I have listened to countless testimonies and victim impact statements of survivors. I have learned from the national reckoning on sexual and gender based violence, the #MeToo movement, and private conversations with loved ones. And I have heard the experiences of retraumatization that our law enforcement agencies, criminal legal system, and school systems cause survivors of violence.
Through this journey of growth and reflection, I now hold a deeper understanding of the perspectives and needs of survivors and a broader view of the crossroads of sexual violence and mass incarceration.
Five things have become abundantly clear:
1) Survivors and their families want to be safe.
2) When they report harm, they want to be seen and heard.
3) They want the people who have caused the harm to be held accountable.
4) They want the person to never commit that harm again.
5) They want the opportunity to heal and move forward with their lives.
As an advocate for systemic reform that manifests true dignity, safety and justice for all people, I share these goals. I am also keenly aware of evidence-based research that tells us our criminal legal system all too often fails to achieve these outcomes. Less than one third of sexual assaults are reported, and even fewer end in justice for survivors and accountability for perpetrators.
We must do better.
No one should suffer in silence or alone. We know there are many systemic and cultural barriers that prevent survivors from disclosing sexual violence.
Survivors, if they do report, must repeatedly detail the harms inflicted upon them to often untrained law enforcement officers.
Once a case is over, we know that survivors are often left without continued services and support to ensure their long term healing and sustained safety. And too often, prosecutors treat survivors merely as a means to win convictions, rather than to secure justice and healing.
Yes, convictions for crimes committed are an important part of the criminal legal system, but I believe justice for survivors demands more than that. For too long, our legal system has sidestepped restorative justice practices and instead focused on punitive, lengthy sentences. The solely punitive framework of the status quo does little to eliminate future violence, support survivors, or hold those who commit harm truly accountable.
We discuss violence as a monolithic character trait rather than what it truly is – something that is born out of a series of circumstances like shame, fear, isolation, poverty, lack of opportunity, unaddressed trauma and mental health issues, or even toxic societal reinforcements.
And if we as a community declare that we want to reduce and even eliminate violence, we have to invest in addressing the underlying causes to reach our goal. It’s time for a more holistic and evidence-based approach to sexual violence in our community.
A truly survivor-centered response to violence would include the broad availability of mental health treatment, counseling, trauma-informed care, culturally rooted and relevant healing practices, and the the removal of barriers to reporting harms and accessing both community-based services and victims’ compensation.
As Santa Clara County District Attorney, I will work to foster a trauma-sensitive, safe community culture that encourages survivors to report the harms against them.
I will advocate to ensure that our county has designated trauma-informed professionals independent of the DA’s office to guarantee that survivors’ rights and preferences are being honored, that information about their case is readily available to them, and that they are empowered and dignified throughout the process.
I will establish channels to connect survivors with holistic resources, streamline processes to ensure access to justice, and provide survivors the wide ranging support, including financial services, that they need to feel safe and to heal. These services and resources will be available to survivors regardless of whether they participate in prosecution and regardless of the outcome of a case.
I will fight to employ trauma-informed deputy district attorneys and staff members who hold space for those who have been harmed, ask them what they need, and respond with empathy, sensitivity and care.
I will seek evidence-based sentences and interventions that honor and respect survivors, provide trauma-informed care, hold offenders accountable, and stop future harms while ensuring due process and dignity for all.
This will include the use of restorative justice programs that center survivors, require the person who caused harm to take responsibility for their actions, and manifest outcomes that will both repair the harm to the extent possible and reduce the likelihood of re-offense through mental health services, anger management counseling, substance dependency treatment, or any other service necessary to address underlying cause of the harmful behavior.
And I will always listen to the voices of survivors, continue to learn from their lived experiences, and seek their collaboration towards the healing and safety of all people in Santa Clara County.
Sajid A. Khan is a public defender in San Jose and 2022 candidate for Santa Clara County District Attorney.