In transgender beating a just (and necessary) sentence

The five-year prison sentence Baltimore County Circuit Judge John Turnbull II imposed on the 19-year-old who savagely beat a transgender woman in a Rosedale McDonald's was both appropriate to the crime and necessary for the peace of mind of the community. Some transgender activists are criticizing the sentence as too light, but it is fair under the circumstances and is certainly sufficient to send the message that transgender people should enjoy the same right as everyone else to live without fear.

The attack on  Chrissy Lee Polis by  Teonna Marie Brown and a girl whose case was handled in juvenile court was vicious and unprovoked. That alone merited a serious response from the criminal justice system. But the fact that the beating, caught on video and viewed around the world, was clearly motivated by Ms. Polis' gender identity made the need for significant punishment all the greater. Ms. Polis captured the lingering effects of the attack in a statement she presented to the court at the sentencing Tuesday, in which she said she wants “to go in a hole and hide” after losing her job and her privacy, and that she can no longer go anywhere without fear of physical harm. Victims of assault may commonly feel that kind of fear, but what made this crime so terrible is that it extends to the entire transgender community, a group that is marginalized already.

Ms. Brown apologized in court today, but that doesn't erase what happened or give transgender Marylanders any confidence that someone else might not act in the same way. The only thing that can do so is for the state to send a message that such crimes are taken seriously, and that's what Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger accomplished by prosecuting the attack as a hate crime, and what Judge Turnbull confirmed by imposing a prison term.

It’s understandable that transgender-rights activists would want to see the perpetrators of this attack locked up forever. And the sentence — actually 10 years, with all but five suspended — isn't the most severe Judge Turnbull could have meted out; the crimes to which Ms. Brown pleaded guilty carried a maximum penalty of 35 years. But five years in prison is more than would be typical for someone with no prior record in a crime that,  although savage, did not cause permanent physical injury. And because of the nature of the crime, Ms. Brown will not be eligible for parole until she has served at least half of her sentence.

In any case, the broader message sent by the imposition of prison time is the important thing. It says that transgender people are welcome in our community and that the state will make sure they are protected.
More crucial, though, is what happens next. The state legislature needs to reaffirm that commitment by adding transgender people to Maryland's anti-discrimination law. A modest effort — one that would not have even guaranteed transgender people access to public accommodations — passed in the House of Delegates this year but failed in the state Senate. The legislature should enact an even stronger version of that legislation when it reconvenes for its regular session in January, and the excuse that the legislature can’t handle that in the same year that it addresses same-sex marriage is absurd. It is past time that we make clear that gender identity is no more basis for discrimination than skin color or sex.

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