Justice Means We Must Believe Survivors First

Justice Means We Must Believe Survivors First
By Jake Lilly
As published in The Colorado Sun on November 17, 2019

It is heartbreaking, infuriating and almost too hard to watch.  A young woman is asked to repeat the painful details of her sexual assault to investigators over and over and over again.  Viewers of the Netflix series ‘Unbelievable’ will recognize this story of a serial rapist in Colorado and in Washington State.

It may be, as the title says, too unbelievable how many times it happens and who the victims of sexual assault are in our society today.  But it does happen, and sexual assault survivors cannot turn it off. They live this reality everyday.

Our society needs to think about sexual assault crimes differently. We can start by believing sexual assault survivors. Throughout Colorado, our police officers approach sexual assault cases with the diligence and respect all survivors deserve. As the Sexual Assault Prosecutor for the 5th District, covering Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake, and Summit Counties, I can tell you that while our team works aggressively to hold perpetrators accountable and put rapists behind bars, it is not as easy as it seems on a TV series.

According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, only five out of every 1,000 sexual assault perpetrators will end up in prison. Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults that occur, only 230 will ever be reported to police.  And from those, 46 will lead to arrest but only nine will make it as far as being a case that will be referred to prosecutors. An even smaller amount actually make it to trial.

In our society today there exists an inherent, inexplicable distrust of the survivor, the one telling their story.  No matter if it is a male or a female, a child or an adult, their story is just too unbelievable to have ever really happened. And so begins the questioning. What were they wearing? Where they alone? Were they drinking? Did they have a relationship with the assailant?  What did they do wrong that contributed to the assault? How much of it was their fault? The answer is none of it is their fault.

Only one person is to blame in a sex assault incident – the perpetrator.  But the need for society to question, to wonder, to disbelieve is why we have been stuck with a legal system that survivors just don’t trust.  They don’t trust the system because they believe they will be judged first on their actions, and not on the actions of their attacker. They believe they will endure the long hours of questioning over and over and over again just to be told their story is too unbelievable to have happened in real life. But this is not something that happens in fictional entertainment. This is the heart of the systemic breakdown leading to failures in the criminal justice system and we have to fix it.

Over the past 20 years there have been great strides in removing legal barriers that made sexual assault prosecutions even rarer than they are today.  The passage of rape shield laws and the utilization of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, coupled with the frequent use of victim advocates, DNA, and the Victim’s Rights Acts, have  improved sucess rates of prosecutions. Colorado has successfully eliminated the shameful backlog of untested rape kits that still plague many other states and from 1993 to 2016 sexual assaults have fallen by almost half.

Behind all of these successes and tremendous amounts of hard work, sexual assault prosecutions still have some of the lowest success rates of success at trial than any other type of prosecution. Creating an environment where sexual assaults are prosecuted to the full extent of the law as other crimes is going to take more than better training and education for police officers and prosecutors –  that is already well underway. To cause a seismic shift in societal attitudes about the stories of sexual assault survivors, it is going to take honest and painful conversations that we first must have with ourselves.

We have to create an environment where survivors are sure they are going to be believed.  We have to create an environment where survivors know that they are protected against retaliation and won’t be  judged for their actions.

This is not an easy task.  As a prosecutor, our mission is not just to convict perpetrators; it is to educate the public on how together we can ensure justice for all.  The mission of our society is to believe it.

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