The charges filed recently against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn have perpetuated a myth: that the U.S. justice system moves swiftly and effectively to resolve allegations of sexual assault.
In the wake of Strauss-Kahn's arrest, the media, particularly in Europe, have highlighted the perceived equality and fairness of a justice system that allows an immigrant single mother with relatively few financial resources to challenge an internationally renowned politician who is able to post a $1-million cash bail. To be sure, this is a remarkable situation, but unfortunately it is not the experience of the vast majority of those who report rapes in this country.
Strauss-Kahn may or may not be guilty, but we do know that every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the United States, according to the Department of Justice's Crime Victimization Survey. We also know that an estimated 60% of these assaults go unreported.
So the question is, do the 40% who are not reluctant to contact the authorities for help actually see justice done?
The answer: It depends.
Nationally, police arrest a suspect in only half of the sexual assault complaints they receive. Most of those arrested are prosecuted, but fewer than two-thirds of those prosecuted are convicted. Moreover, not all those convicted are sentenced to incarceration. In the end, an estimated 1 out of 16 rapists spends time in jail.
Some jurisdictions have better records than others. In 2009, Human Rights Watch published a report about the appalling response to sexual violence in Los Angeles County, where arrest figures had been declining and — more to the point — the physical evidence taken from rape victims that might have helped lead to a DNA match and a prosecution was systematically filed away without being sent for testing. The situation in Los Angeles has improved since then, but there are other places where this isn't the case. In 2010, we published a report about Illinois, showing similar problems.
In fact, the prevailing failure to try to convict rapists is directly related to the way police and prosecutors treat victims, their testimony and the evidence. It is telling that the media description of the alleged victim in the Strauss-Kahn case highlights her religious devotion and life struggles — factors that in many people's eyes would make her a more credible witness. But victims without those attributes are often perceived very differently. Police officers sometimes abandon a rape case because, based on initial interviews and context alone, they don't believe the alleged victim is a credible witness.
Research suggests that 3% to 8% of rape complaints are false — similar to the proportion of other crime complaints. But researchers have found that police officers are much more likely to mistrust an alleged rape victim than they are to mistrust other victims, particularly if the woman alleging sexual assault doesn't conform to police notions of how a woman should act.
This course of action may seem logical: Few would want the police to waste valuable resources on investigations of crimes that didn't really happen. However, experience from jurisdictions such as New York — where all rape kits, as the physical evidence is called, are processed — reveals that a subjective analysis of victim credibility can be wrong. After New York decided to test every rape kit, and not just the ones from cases in which the police officer subjectively felt the allegation was likely to be true, the arrest rate rose over five years from 40% to 70% of complaints filed, and the proportion of convictions grew too. The point here is not that New York's response to sexual violence is perfect but rather that the decision to pursue rape cases — whether or not police find the victim credible by subjective measures — can result in more prosecutions.
The U.S. justice system deals unevenly with sexual violence. A state-by-state analysis of relevant legislation, policies and crime statistics would most likely show that the record is better where victim rights are a priority and where "tough on crime" rhetoric is backed by across-the-board action.
But let's go back to the broader issue of sexual violence and that fact that a woman is sexually assaulted in the United States every two minutes. Whatever the outcome of the proceedings against Strauss-Kahn, this high-profile case has brought the subject of sexual assault into the realm of public discussion, and that is a good thing. But as long as rape and sexual assault are so common in the United States, we can hardly say the system is working just fine.
Marianne Mollmann is women's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.