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More Women Are Coming Forward to Report Rape, But Conviction Rates Are Falling

New figures show reports of rape have doubled—so why are fewer people going to prison?

by Sirin Kale
Oct 13 2016, 1:05pm

Photo by aaronbelford inc via Stocksy

More women than ever are telling police they've been raped, according to official new statistics from the UK-based Rape Monitoring Group. Yet despite the two-fold increase in reporting over the last five years, overall conviction rates of rape have fallen.

Analysis from the Guardian shows that reports of rape in England and Wales have risen 135 percent since 2011-12, up from 10,160 to 23,851 in 2015-16. Despite the sharp increase in adults—almost all of them women—coming forward, conviction rates only rose 11 percent over the same period.

An 11 percent increase in recording rates might superficially appear to be a cause for celebration. However, once you factor in conviction rates, it becomes clear that the criminal justice system is failing to keep up. In the one-year period between 2011 and 2012, 24 percent of alleged rapists were convicted. That number has plummeted to 11 percent in the last year, meaning that convictions have halved in the interim time.

"We know that the data can only provide one part of the performance picture on rape," Wendy Williams, the chair of the Rape Monitoring Group, said in a statement. "Numbers alone cannot tell the full story and we have worked hard to provide context and understanding."

Advocates and academics attribute the sharp rise in reporting part to the high-profile sexual assault cases that have been a fixture of the British press over the last few years. As public figures such Jimmy Savile were outed as sexual predators, other victims of rape began feeling empowered to report their own cases.

Read more: The Cop Pioneering a New Approach to Reporting and Investigating Sexual Assault

"It's positive that we're talking about sexual assault and rape much more than we ever have done," agrees Professor Nicole Westmarland, an expert in sexual violence. "The first step towards dealing with the worldwide epidemic of rape and sexual abuse is talking about it."

But Westmarland says that the criminal justice system is already straining under the weight of government cuts, and is failing to cope with the increasing number of rape cases. "The organizations responding need to have the skills, experience and resources to deal with it. What we've seen is a massive decrease in the amount of resource that the police, prosecutors, and the courts have to deal with sexual violence."

"There are skilled and dedicated people who want to do a good job," she explains, "but the resources just aren't there."

Photo by Raymond Forbes LLC via Stocksy

Another problem is the time that rape cases take to pass through the courts—the report shows that rape cases take 247 days to be completed, compared to 171 days for other crown court cases. As a result, many victims are unable to see the process through. In 25 percent of cases in 2015-16, the victim declined to have the case taken to court.

"A lot of women want something to be done," Westmarland explains, "but they don't want to go though a court case. It's not for everybody." The solution? "We need to find ways to reduce opportunities for further offending so that these people can have some level of further monitoring."

Westmorland says that victims often report feelings of guilt when individuals who victimized them go on to offend against others. "They say, 'Could I have stopped him by speaking out?' But the reality is that often that's not the case. Reporting to the police is a way of speaking out without having to go through the criminal justice system, which many women are unable to do."


Watch: Amy Ziering Talks Campus Rape and Why No One Believes Women

What's certain is that the criminal justice system is failing survivors brave enough to come forward and report their rape. "These stats raise big questions about why conviction rates are falling and what more can be done to ensure juries are making decisions based on the realities of sexual violence and not the myths," argues Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, an Durham University academic who researches violence against women and girls.

"There's a lot of important work [that has been done] in reforming the criminal justice system," she acknowledges, but points out that more needs to be done. "I'd like to see long-term cross-party investment in altitudinal and behavioral change work, specifically focusing on gender inequality and violence against women."

This could include training young people about sexual violence in universities and schools, more responsible media reporting, and public awareness campaigns to challenge common misconceptions and myths. "We need to increase spaces where women and men feel they can speak about what has been done to them and feel supported, which for many wouldn't be within the criminal justice system anyway."

Read more: Would On-The-Spot Fines Stop Catcalling for Good?

Ultimately, today's statistics obscure a far more depressing and darker truth: For every victim who steps forward, and the fewer still who see their attacker punished by the courts, many more are unseen and unspoken.

"The reality is, we still don't have a good measure of the true scale of rape and sexual abuse," Westmarland explains. "I've been researching this my whole life, and even I don't know whether rape is increasing or decreasing or how reporting is changing."

Without a large scale, government-backed study, it's almost impossible to quantify how many lives have been touched by sexual violence, as the vast majority of victims are known not to come forward. And issues to do with how certain crimes are reported—such as childhood sexual abuse—can obscure their real prevalence.

One thing we know for certain? Rape and sexual violence is not an extraordinary crime—it's a depressingly common one, and not nearly enough is being done about it.

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