Justice for Rihanna

Singer Chris Brown's surprise plea deal yesterday was harsher than expected, says former sex-crimes prosecutor and bestselling author Linda Fairstein, and the most important component is the message it sends to other domestic abusers.

Lori Shepler / AP Photo

Chris Brown is a convicted felon. That probably won’t do much to hurt his record sales, but it is a stunning development in the case—and in the young singer’s life—since his arrest for beating his girlfriend, Rihanna, and threatening to kill her on February 8.

Some will cry that his plea deal—five years of probation and 180 days of community service—is “celebrity justice,” but I disagree. I think it’s an instance in which the media attention to the plight of both celebrities, the assailant and his victim, helped keep the heat on both of them. In Rihanna’s case, for the better: She has survived the attack and freed herself of an abusive partner who, as Oprah said, would indeed hit her again. In Brown’s case, the media attention made him acknowledge his guilt and be punished for the crime.

While some complain that he got off with “only” probation, the disposition in this case is harsher than my 30 years of prosecuting batterers had me betting it would be.

The prosecutor had the evidence he needed to go forward. Calls to 911 made by the terrified victim and photographs documenting the nature of her injuries: a bloodied face and choke marks that might have served to convict Brown had Rihanna chosen to stand by her man and not cooperate with the district attorney’s office.

The biggest surprise to me—and the best one—is that Rihanna had the courage, the fortitude, and the support of enough family and friends to act wisely and well. She ended her relationship with Brown, despite the efforts of some of his older thug role models to shepherd them back together, and showed up at the Los Angeles courthouse Monday, ready to testify against him.

So Brown took a plea. He admitted his guilt, admitted that he assaulted the talented young star who had been his lover, and left the courtroom a felon.

Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg will sentence Brown to five years of probation and 180 days of community service, in the form of labor. While some will complain that he got off with “only” probation, the disposition in this case is harsher than my 30 years of prosecuting batterers had me betting it would be. In the average first arrest of a 20-year-old man with no criminal history and visible means of support—forget R&B star status—most cases are reduced to misdemeanors with a probation period of less than one year. Few communities have the resources to offer meaningful programs that try to re-educate offenders.

The judge specified that she expects Brown to “be treated the same as any other defendant who would come into this court,” so that he will be picking up garbage or removing graffiti—that is, physical labor, which most perps on probation never have to do. He’s got to pay a fine and take a year’s worth of classes for batterers—and yes, he’s young enough to learn something from that.

There are guys who never reoffend, if they figure out what’s at stake. Rihanna gets an order of protection—Brown can’t come within 50 feet of her—and if he violates any of the terms of his probation, he is facing four years of incarceration.

This tragic beating raised public awareness of the epidemic proportion of this kind of crime in America. Rihanna is smart and safe. Young women everywhere should learn from her courage. And Chris Brown is a convicted felon.

Linda Fairstein, former chief prosecutor of the New York County DA's Office Sex Crimes Unit, is one of America's foremost legal authorities on crimes of violence against women and children. She is also the author of the current New York Times bestselling crime novel Lethal Legacy and a member of the Board of Directors of Safe Horizon.