The outlines of the story were infuriating yet familiar: A young man of privilege was accused of a serious crime, arrested, prosecuted and then treated gently by a judge.
This week, it was a New Jersey teenager identified in court documents only as G.M.C., who prosecutors said raped an intoxicated 16-year-old girl at a party, made a cellphone video of the act and then shared the video with friends, adding: “When your first time having sex was rape.”
The judge dismissed the young man’s own description of what he did. Instead, court documents said, the judge wondered if the accuser and her mother had considered the devastating effect on the boy’s life this charge might have. The boy “comes from a good family who put him into an excellent school where he was doing extremely well,” the judge said, noting that the young man was an Eagle Scout.
“He is clearly a candidate for not just college but probably for a good college,” Judge James Troiano of Superior Court, sitting in Monmouth County, said last year.
As Judge Troiano’s comments became widely known to the public this week, they were met with outrage and calls for him to be barred from the bench. But there was also widespread frustration that variations of the same scenario seem to play out on a loop in the nation’s criminal justice system, allowing people with markers of privilege — whether in education, wealth or race — to be given light treatment, probation or short sentences.
As Josie Duffy Rice, a host of a “Justice in America” podcast, wrote on Twitter, “These stories epitomize the reasons women often choose not to report their sexual assault. In a system like this, with judges like these, in a world that prioritizes men’s potential over women’s lived experiences — why would you?”
Judge Troiano was no rogue judge, experts in criminal justice said, and the sentiments he voiced in court — expressing concern for the future prospects of the accused, while glossing over harm inflicted on the victim — were not particularly extraordinary.
“He is not an appalling outlier,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law who has studied sexual violence. “He gave voice to something that is woven into the fabric of our culture. There’s a longstanding tradition of trivializing harm to victims of sexual assault and focusing instead on harm to perpetrators.”
Professor Tuerkheimer calls the phenomenon the “care gap,” in which “there’s a lot of space between the care, the attention, the pull on our heartstrings that we all tend to give to accused men, particularly when they’re privileged,” rather than to the women who are victims of sexual violence.
Other high-profile cases that have attracted media attention in recent years fit a similar pattern and have prompted nationwide calls for sentencing reform.
Brock Turner, a former swimmer at Stanford University, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman after a party and convicted on charges of sexual assault of an unconscious person, sexual assault of an intoxicated person and sexual assault with intent to commit rape.
He was sentenced to six months in jail and three years’ probation in 2016, and was released from jail after three months. The judge, facing a furious outcry over the sentence, was recalled last year by California voters.
Owen Labrie, once a student at the exclusive St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, was convicted in 2015 of sexually assaulting a classmate during a “senior salute,” a campus ritual in which seniors met younger students for romantic encounters before graduation. Mr. Labrie, then 18, invited a 15-year-old girl to a rooftop, where she said he raped her.
He was released early from jail for good behavior last month after serving six months.
Then there was Ethan Couch, a Texas teenager who killed four people and severely injured another while driving drunk in June 2016. Prosecutors sought a 20-year prison sentence, but a psychologist who testified in Mr. Couch’s defense argued that he suffered from “affluenza,” psychological afflictions said to result from growing up with wealth and privilege.
In the New Jersey case that drew anger, the judge involved was rebuked by an appeals court for his handling of the accusation of rape, and the case will be moved to a grand jury.
“That the juvenile came from a good family and had good test scores we assume would not condemn the juveniles who do not come from good families and do not have good test scores from withstanding waiver application,” the panel wrote in its decision. Judge Troiano is retired but occasionally fills vacancies on the bench.
Elizabeth L. Jeglic, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that the case could reflect a common sentiment in criminal sentencing, in which people sympathize with other people who are similar to them.
“Maybe the judge identified with this family or individual,” she said. “People are subject to biases. Wealth does influence sentencing, as well as race and class. It’s not usually as obvious as it is in these cases.”
Research has shown that African-Americans receive longer sentences than white people, she said, and that judges often rely too heavily on their own intuition when making decisions.
“My take home from this is that this is obviously egregious,” Professor Jeglic said. “But it’s the perfect timing for it, as we are now having conversations about criminal justice reform, and part of that conversation is sentencing.”
Too many sexual assault cases are clouded by a judge’s consideration of a defendant’s background and upbringing, said Laura Palumbo, a spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a nonprofit based in Pennsylvania that compiles data on sexual assault.
“There is a common thread here, and that is that the actions of some are not to be put in the same category as others,” Ms. Palumbo said, “or that someone’s behavior is not as serious or harmful because of their perceived character.”