Sex Assault Opinion Piece

Sex Assault Opinion Piece

We have just recently concluded Sexual Assault Awareness Month and it’s time for us to have conversation about changing how we criminally handle sexual assaults.

I currently serve as the Sexual Assault Prosecutor for the 5th Judicial District and have previously been a military prosecutor, a Special Assistant United States Attorney, and an Assistant District Attorney in Georgia and Texas.  I have also defended Sexual Assault cases as a defense attorney.  I have handled my fair share of sexual assault cases.  In fact, two of my first three jury trials ever were sexual assault prosecutions for the 3rd Infantry Division of the United States Army.

It is no exaggeration to say that we fail at sexual assault prosecutions more than just about any other crime.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, only 5 out of every 1000 sexual assault perpetrators will end up in prison despite sexual assault caring some of the strongest penalties we can provide.  Out of every 1000 sexual assaults, only 230 will even be reported to police.  46 of those will lead to arrest and 9 will be referred to prosecutors. 

But this is not simply a matter of police and prosecutors failing victims. In fact, they usually take it quite seriously and work aggressively to punish perpetrators under trying circumstances. It is rather a systemic problem that starts with society’s inherent distrust of these types of cases.

We frequently read about sexual assault cases in the media. Yet, readers will often cast doubt on the chain of events described in a sex assault incident, more so than allegations of any other crimes.  Only one person is to blame in a sex assault incident, and that is the perpetrator. While many reading this will nod in agreement, some may still quietly question survivors in their head from what were they wearing to why were they in that situation.  This is why we have been stuck with a system that survivors just don’t trust.  They know better than to trust it because they know they are judged for actions that were in no way their fault. They know that a jury will judge them in the same manner, regardless of what those jurors claim beforehand. This is the heart of the systemic breakdown leading to failures in the criminal justice system.

It is not exaggeration to say that we’ve made great strides in sexual assault prosecutions.  Removal of the use of force requirements, rape shield laws, SANE examiners, the frequent use of victim advocates, DNA, and Victim’s Rights Acts have all contributed to greatly improved responses by prosecutors.  Colorado has successfully eliminated the shameful backlog of untested rape kits that still plague many other states.  Sexual assaults have fallen by almost half from 1993 to 2016.  Reports of sexual assault incidents against men are rising as society starts to recognize that men too can be assaulted. Yet, despite all of these successes and tremendous amounts of hard work, sexual assault prosecutions still have some of the lowest success rates of any other type of prosecution.

Creating an environment where sexual assaults are handled as successfully as other crimes is going to take more than just police and prosecutors getting better at handling these types of cases.  That is already well underway.  It is going to take seismic shifts in societal attitudes towards consent and survivors.  It is also going to take honest and painful conversations about toxic masculinity.

We have to create the environment where survivors are sure they are going to be believed.  We have to create the environment where survivors know that they are protected against retaliation and won’t be silently judged for their actions.  I will say it again: sexual assault is the fault of one person only; the perpetrator.  We need to encourage that throughout our country.  It’s easy to say and many people say it.  Yet, we still see a system that survivors just don’t trust.  They know better than to trust because they still get judged every day in life for actions that were in no way their fault.  They know that a jury will judge the same, regardless of what those jurors claim beforehand.

This is not going to be easy.  But, when society changes how it views these types of crimes, reporting and successful prosecutions will increase.