Judge Corey is not to blame in Schneider case

The Vote No on Judge Corey campaign is a call to justice that all of us should sympathize with. Justin Schneider committed an act of moral disgust worthy of utmost condemnation. Perhaps equally as revolting is the hollow sentence he received: three years of probation and sex-offender treatment, along with other monitoring conditions. The outrage on a local and national level appeals to a timely cry for action, especially in the age of #MeToo.

The problem is that the confusing details of the case, along with some ugly inconsistencies in Alaska law, have caused us to place blame on the judge in the case, Judge Michael Corey. That is a mistake.

The most important part of this entire case is that the sentence was not reduced or limited because the judge thought the crime was undeserving of punishment. Justin Schneider kidnapped, choked and masturbated on the woman he assaulted. Only the first two of those three acts are punishable under Alaska law. The sentence was a result of a plea deal, which is an agreement between the prosecution and the defendant where sentences and pleas are negotiated in order to make the court process more efficient. This particular deal brought down sentencing for Schneider’s offenses in exchange for a guilty plea.

Corey was technically able to reject the plea, but it’s good that he didn’t. First off, judges rarely intervene in plea agreements. They are meant to be objective observers of a case and make judgments based on the details of the situation. Inserting personal views on sentencing before the case is brought to court is a violation of the spirit of the legal system.

But secondly and most importantly, it is unclear that had the prosecution brought the whole case to trial, Schneider would have been fully convicted. The whereabouts of the witness was unknown, and jurors tend to err on the side of placing responsibility on the women who were assaulted rather than the perpetrator. Evidence of the physical assault was barely present, and it wasn’t clear it would be present by the time it mattered to the case.

This is crucial to understanding why it seems like the sentence he received was so light. The choice for the prosecution was either to bring a case to trial that would likely have lost, resulting in Schneider serving little or possibly no time at all or a plea deal that, at the very least, guaranteed sex offender registration, monitoring to ensure other women are kept safe and a probation sentence. The latter was the far more responsible choice.

As for Corey’s specific ruling, it is important to understand the context in which it was made. The charge levied against Schneider is called a class B felony, which would have included a couple of years in jail. That is, based on current Alaska statutes, the lawful guideline for sentencing.

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Granted, it’s easy to say that Corey should have exercised his discretion to add several years of sentencing due to the severity of the situation. That frame of mind encourages judges to distribute their own sentences regardless of the law, which would remove objectivity from the legal system. Judges who are encouraged to issue whatever sentences they like could use that discretion to discriminate against defendants they simply didn’t like, particularly based on characteristics like race.

To reiterate: Corey implemented a sentence based on what the law says. This is not a Brock Turner situation where Schneider was let off easy because the judge felt sorry for the defendant.

Additionally, voters confusing Corey’s justification for the decision should be careful to separate that from the Anchorage Assistant District Attorney’s poorly-phrased statements. It was the Assistant District Attorney Andrew Grannik who called the plea deal “a pass,” not Corey.

Lastly, voting Corey off to send a symbolic message does little more than mask the real problem at hand. Real justice does not come by punishing judges who made legally advisable decisions in the face of fixed circumstances. The laws that allowed for this case to end up the way it did need to be targeted. Voters should direct their energy towards the Alaska State Legislature, where lawmakers can expand the definition of sexual crimes. They can also remove provisions that allow defendants with ankle-monitors deduct time from their sentence, which complicated Corey’s sentencing calculus.

Punishing Corey only incentives other judges to issue harsh, unfair decisions for fear of being targeted in a campaign the next election cycle. Those decisions fall on poor, defenseless defendants of color more than anyone else. If you’re unconscionably enraged by Schneider’s action like I am, take meaningful action by picking up your phone and calling your representatives.