Thursday 15 March 2012

Rating rape

And now for something completely different...

Over the last few days, Matron has watched the unfolding of What could become a new campaign on Twitter with an increasing sense of discomfort. Calling itself the 58% campaign, it is seemingly trying to encourage women not to be deterred from reporting a rape or other sexual assault to the police because of low conviction rates.

The figure bandied about in the popular press and various studies in this regard is 6%. That is the percentage of cases where a conviction for rape is secured compared to the total number of cases reported to the police. Not so, argues the campaign, pointing out that this figure misrepresents the situation because rape is the only crime where conviction rates are calculated in this way. In all other crimes, the term "conviction rate" refers to the rate of convictions compared to the number of cases brought to trial while the rate of comparison between reported cases and convictions is called "attrition rate". Using the former method, so the campaign argues, the rape conviction rate is actually 58%, much higher than in relation to many other types of offences.

As Matron said, the campaign seems to mean well, seeing as it is trying to encourage women to report rape cases by telling them that they are in no more danger of having their attacker go unpunished than are many other victims of crime. However, from a psychological point of view, this campaign misses a few major points.

First and foremost, most women will probably agree that when it comes to evaluating whether the prospect of putting oneself through the ordeal of reporting a sexual assault (and for most victims it will be an ordeal) is worth the potential outcome, they will not really care at what stage in the proceedings their case fails. One of the most recent studies on attrition in rape cases (dated from 2005) identifies no fewer than 6 attrition points between reporting a crime and eventual conviction:
  1. The victim's decision whether or not to report in the first place
  2. The police's decision whether or not there is any evidence of assault or whether they are faced with a false allegation
  3. The police's decision whether or not the evidence is sufficient for charges to be brought
  4. The victim's decision to withdraw the accusation for whatever reason (which includes becoming aware of the practical consequences for them of seeing the case through to trial)
  5. The CPS' decision of whether or not to bring the case to court
  6. The court's decision whether or not to convict
If we disregard the first attrition point, that is five separate instances during which a victim will be faced with the prospect of "it all having been in vain". Five separate occasions for regret. Five separate opportunities for having additional psychological damage inflicted upon you on top of the trauma of the original offence.

Even more interestingly, all the studies that have been carried out in this area confirm "that the highest proportion of cases is lost at the earliest stages, with between half and two-thirds dropping out before referral to prosecutors". Now that is undoubtedly true for almost all criminal offences, but nonetheless Matron would be interested to see how those figures compare to rates of attrition between the reporting and the prosecution stage in relation to other crimes. If the percentage of "lost cases" is substantially higher with regard to rape and sexual assault than in respect of other crimes, this might actually also explain a slightly higher conviction rate for rape (ie, many of the main hurdles might already have been jumped in the pre-trial stages).

Given those circumstances, however, victims (and Matron includes all genders in this argument) might be forgiven if, in the case of rape, they are looking at the attrition rate rather than the actual conviction rate. In fact, encouraging women to report on the basis of an assumption that they have a good chance to have their attacker convicted might be paramount to gross misrepresentation given the 6% figure. And yes, it might be fact that the conviction rate for rape is higher than, say, for burglary. But no victim of burglary will be required to expose themselves to quite such as extent in the context of holding the offender to account, so we would be comparing the proverbial apples and pears, if we relied on that argument.

Make no mistake, Matron is all for encouraging women to report. Not ever having been a victim of any form of sexual assault, she sincerely hopes a) that it will stay that way and b) that she would have the courage to do that if it ever happened to her. But she does not kid herself that she would definitely report it, if it ever happened. You just can't know how you would react until you are in that situation yourself. Of course, increasing reporting rates is important. Until we have the real figures, the question of rape and sexual assault will never get the attention it deserves and the public perception that women are doing it in droves "to get one over a man they have some beef with with" will remain in place. But there are other ways to achieve this, most importantly by improving the way in which victims are treated by the police and the justice system. That's what people have focused on for the last decade or so and, in Matron's view, rightly so.

This campaign, on the other hand, runs the risk of doing more damage that good, not only because it may depict the actual reality of trying prosecute a rape case (and particularly what this means for the victim) in an unrealistically favourable light, but also because it suggests to the general public that our criminal justice system "works just fine" with regard to rape or at least no worse than in relation to any other crime. That's not the case yet for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that in order to reflect the additional trauma victims go through by virtue of the prosecution process alone, we should really be aiming for pre-trial attrition rates that are way below those of other crimes. Only then would the majority of victims be reassured that they and their case will be taken seriously and that they are not putting themselves through all this for nothing.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. So please, honourable campaigners, do your homework. Read a few studies, crunch a few numbers and speak to a few rape victims before you embark on this crusade and, above all, don't diss the use of the attrition rate without understanding what it stands for in these cases.

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