In the UK, a recent government review on how rape cases are handled has come to some surprising and controversial conclusions about how the statistic that only 6% of reported rapes result in a conviction has been used:
Baroness Stern’s independent report into how rape complaints are handled called for politicians and campaigners to stop quoting the 6% figure. Stern said the way it had been used was “extremely unhelpful” and misleading, because it suggested there was little chance of attackers being found guilty in court. The fact that 58% of cases that reached court resulted in a successful prosecution was more relevant, Stern said.
Campaigners accused her of missing the point that many rape complaints never get to court, often because of problems with the police and prosecution system. Baird said she too thought the reports-to-convictions rate remained important.
Baird said more needed to be made of the 58% figure, which had increased by more than half since 1997. The government’s interim response said it agreed with Stern that the way statistics were reported too often did not reflect the reality of what happened in the courtroom.
The Stern review was commissioned by the government last year in response to concerns over the conviction rate. Baird said at the time that the report should offer answers on how to drive the rate up.
The crossbench peer instead came back with a report that called for a broader measure of success to be adopted, with support to victims to be given equal priority. She criticised the focus on the 6% figure, saying it remained important but was “not the be all and end all”.
While she heavily implied it in her quotes above, she also specifically argued that use of the statistic was preventing victims from reporting their rapes to police:
The report called for an end to the use by politicians and campaigners of the much-quoted 6% conviction rate, which represents the proportion of reported rapes that end in a conviction for rape itself. It was misleading and may be putting victims off reporting attacks, Stern said.
Unsurprisingly, as the articles note, there are many who disagree with her.
It seems that two things are being conflated here by Baroness Stern: harm being done to victims, and victims deciding not to come forward and press charges.
If there’s evidence out there that the decision to not press charges is harmful to victims, I’d love someone to show it to me.
But until that’s the case, it’s a false equivalence being suggested. I do not support discouraging victims from reporting if they want to report, in any way shape or form. But I also do NOT support, have never supported, and never will support actively lying to or misleading victims in order to encourage them to report their rapes when doing so only lead them into a criminal justice system that is an absolute mess, and will, statistically, leave their attackers off the hook.
There’s a reason that the criminal justice process is so frequently referred to as “the second rape.” It’s because not being believed, having to relive the rape over and over and over again in front of strangers, having to sit in the same room as your attacker during court (if you’re lucky enough to make it that far), and then most likely watching your rapist walk free and vindicated at the end of it, is traumatizing as hell. I am frankly disgusted, purely nauseated, by the suggestion that purposely leading anyone into that without the full knowledge of what they’re up against is something morally required of us. As far as ethics go, I say that they require the exact opposite.
Since starting this blog, I can’t even begin to tell you the number of stories that have been told to me about awful, cruel, and fully unacceptable interactions with police and prosecutors. They’re left in the comments of this blog all the time. They’re sent to me in email. It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction that I’ve managed to create a space where so many feel comfortable doing that. It also gives me a deep sense of how entrenched and widespread the problem is.
It’s not mentioned in any news report I found that victims not “coming forward” means them not seeking medical care and/or not seeking counseling and/or other recovery-related services. If the study did show that, it would be something far worthier of consideration than what is being presented here. But what Baroness Stern seems to be arguing is that telling the truth about conviction rates and pressuring the criminal justice system to improve isn’t so much directly harming victims as it is preventing equally important issues from being addressed:
Providing specialist care for rape victims should be given as high a priority as the conviction of the rapists, a review said on Monday.
Crossbench peer Baroness Stern, urged for independent sexual violence advisers (ISVAs) to help victims recover after an attack and asked every police force to set up a specialist rape unit by next year.
The ironic thing is that I strongly agree with her in terms of victim care and the need for increased focus on it. I also agree with a significant portion of what she says in this audio interview. The problem is that addressing the low conviction rate for rapists, as well as the poor treatment of victims at the hands of police, need not be mutually exclusive with providing therapeutic care and ensuring that victims can access the tools they need to assist recovery. Indeed, if the only means through which a victim has access (or believes they have access) to such things is through the police, then that is your problem right there.
Providing better victim care, and realizing that a successful court case isn’t the end of the ordeal for a victim, doesn’t require minimizing the truth about conviction rates. It doesn’t require covering up the kind of treatment that previous victims have received at the hands of law enforcement. It doesn’t require using a far prettier though highly misleading statistic. It doesn’t require shifting resources from one area to another. It just requires more resources, a greater focus, and a more comprehensive and holistic look at sexual violence. Pretending that it’s an either/or choice and we must stop talking about the 6% conviction rate in order to talk about other things that matter to victims is frankly disingenuous at best.
I want to see more rapists convicted. I want more victims to have their day of justice. I was more victims to feel comfortable coming forward when that is what they want to do. I want the law to take rape seriously, in every single corner of the world that exists. I desperately, desperately want that.
But I don’t support a by any means necessary approach. The way to accomplish these goals is not to sacrifice victims to our alter of supposed good intentions. It’s not through lying. It’s not through further tearing apart lives. It’s not through saying “yes, you should report,” while not having anything available for those who follow the directive and do. And it’s not through fudging numbers so that victims feel better for a little while, before they learn the truth the hard way.