Colorado’s Vague Sexual Assault Sentencing Laws Led To A College Rapist Avoiding Jail

Austin James Wilkerson was convicted of sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact at his trial in May. The 22-year-old former University of Colorado student pretended to be helping a drunk woman get home safely from a party in 2014 when he raped her. Despite admitting guilt and being convicted, Colorado’s vague sentencing laws for sexual assault helped him get away with no jail time.

“I sexually assaulted [the victim],” Wilkerson said at the Wednesday hearing. “No words I can say could ever take away the pain and fear that I have caused. Nothing I say can make it better, but I am so sorry.” He should have spent four to 12 years in prison for the Class 3 felony, but instead, Boulder District Judge Patrick Butler gave him two years of work or school release and 20 years to life on probation. Why, you ask? Because state law mandates that sexual assault offenders be given an indeterminate prison sentence and only be released when “deemed fit” to return to society. Judge Butler didn’t want to subject the young man to years in prison without a release date, so he just didn’t send him to jail at all.

“I’ve struggled, to be quite frank, with the idea of, ‘Do I put him in prison?'” Butler said at the hearing. “I don’t know that there is any great result for anybody. Mr. Wilkerson deserves to be punished, but I think we all need to find out whether he truly can or cannot be rehabilitated.”

The victim, who addressed the court but left before Wilkerson’s sentencing, asked the judge to put her attacker behind bars. “Have as much mercy for the rapist as he did for me that night,” she said, detailing that she still has nightmares and suffers from panic attacks.

Not sending a college rapist to prison because of the negative effects it could have on his life is reminiscent of Brock Turner’s light six-month sentence back in June. Convicted felons are supposed to go to jail — that’s how the system works — regardless of how much it will mess up their young lives. Wilkerson’s 20 years of probation means he’ll be watched by law enforcement, but letting rapists off easy again and again sends the message that rape isn’t that big a deal and the victims aren’t that important.

Colorado’s unclear law surrounding sexual assault sentences makes it even easier for judges to minimally punish rapists, whether it was intended to have that effect not. Just as the law has to be clear about what constitutes sexual assault, it has to be clear about what a proper prison sentence would be.