Well, there’s a surprise

Some research by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in New Zealand has found that few men charged with serious sex offences are convicted.*

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs yesterday released the findings of a two-year study analysing all adult sexual violation cases recorded by the police between July 2005 and December 2007.

Research manager Denise Lievore said the study looked at why sexual violation cases did not continue through the different stages of the criminal process.

The study found the overall conviction rate, based on 1955 recorded cases, was just 13 per cent.

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has a two year research programme on sexual violence, and it has released the first two reports: an environmental scan (PDF – 2.4MB) and a study of attrition rates in the criminal justice system (PDF – 1.7mb).

The environmental scan surveyed views from individuals and agencies that work with adult victims of sexual violence, and it found that agencies didn’t have enough funding, or enough qualified staff. They thought that barriers that prevented victims from getting help included victim shame and self-blaming, lack of information about services, the cost of services, the lack of services, and geographical isolation. The criminal justice system retraumatised victims, and excluding police, less than half of the doctors (20%), service providers (38%) and Crown prosecutors (39%) involved in working with victims of sexual violence would advise a friend or family member to go through the criminal justice system, and even police (59%) weren’t all that keen on it.

That’s disturbing. Most people working in the area, and many police officers, don’t think that it’s worth pursuing a sexual violence case through the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system fails women. Full stop.

And when you look at the numbers in the attrition study, you can see why . The research team looked at 1,955 police files that were coded as sexual violation of an adult victim. These covered all of the offences so coded in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Of all these cases only 13% resulted in a conviction. Even when “no offence” cases were excluded (the initial investigation found no offence), just 20% resulted in a conviction. So that’s odds of 1 in 5, if police think there is a case to answer.

Some more numbers: stranger assaults accounted for just 15% of cases, and “just met” (within the last 24 hours) assaults for another 16%. So 69% of sexual assaults were perpetrated by people known to the victim – 33% by intimates (family, current or ex-partners), and 37% by other known offenders (friends, acquaintances, colleagues and other work associates, caregivers).

As for how to fix the problems – people suggested improving the ways in which victims are able to give evidence, especially with respect to cross-examination, abolishing the accused’s right to silence, requring the full disclosure of defence evidence, placing the onus on the accused to prove that consent had been given.

Hmmm… In many ways I am loathe to give up the standard protections that a person accused of a crime is entitled to. I don’t want to see the power of the state deployed against individuals without giving those individuals some rights and protections. But clearly, there is something deeply wrong with the way we perceive and prosecute sexual violence. I’ve written before about consent: On consent. Very roughly, I think that if the accused pleads “not guilty because she consented,” then the onus is on him to prove that he did indeed have good grounds to believe that consent was given. And it needs to be positive consent, not merely the absence of non-consent.

Respondents also suggested educating juries, who seem to believe that rape is carried out by strangers, not by family, friends and acquaintances. Some police and professionals should specialise in sexual violence cases, victims should have access to more information, especially written information so they can read it when they are ready to, there should be earlier and improved contact with prosecutors, more doctors qualified to conduct examinations, better facilities for victims.

The reports are disheartening reading, confirming what we already know about the justice system and sexual violence i.e. there is no justice for victims of sexual violence. The proposed solutions would all cost money, and the New Zeaand government seems to be in a cost-cutting mood, unless it’s to provide subsidies for pollution. However, the Minister for Justice does seem to want to make improvements to the law around sexual violence. I hope he’s getting a briefing about these reports from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

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*NB: stuff.co.nz is loading very, very slowly, so you may not be able to get the story up. I would have linked to a story on the NZ Herald site if I could, but Granny Herald doesn’t seem to think it’s worth reporting.

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