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October 26, 2017

The Sexual Assault Justice Initiative could help #MeToo create lasting change

October 26, 2017

A recent campaign, #MeToo, has caught fire in response to another round of high-profile sexual assault allegations. Over the past several weeks, Hollywood’s troubles came screaming into the headlines with stories of powerful people sexually assaulting female actors. We’ve heard similar uproars in the past, but this is seen as a watershed moment, with thousands of women opening up and sharing painful memories via #MeToo.

This hashtag campaign has contributed to the national dialogue by creating a space for survivors compelled to share their stories. But beyond that, what might help us effectively address sexual assault? What might make this moment different from when these issues made headlines before? The Sexual Assault Justice Initiative could play a role in making this moment distinct.

Sexual assaults and the justice system

The rate of sexual assault increased from 2014 to 2015, with over 400,000 Americans reporting they experienced a sexual assault that year. Contrary to popular notions that only strangers perpetrate sexual assault, 9 in 10 survivors reported knowing their attacker.

But only one-third of sexual assault crimes were reported to the police in 2015. And on college campuses, where sexual assault has been a topic of much discussion, only 1 in 5 students report assaults to the police

There are many reasons survivors may not report an assault to the police, such as fearing retaliation, feeling the issue is a personal matter, minimizing their attack, or believing the police will minimize the attack. Urban Institute research shows that survivors’ experiences with police and prosecutors can vary and can discourage people from coming forward. Some survivors reported experiences where the police didn’t believe their stories, were insensitive, or blamed them for their assault, while others reported positive, supportive relationships with investigators and prosecutors who encouraged their continued participation with the case.

When police and prosecutors lack the expertise to effectively investigate and prosecute these crimes, they may erroneously conclude that a case is too difficult to take to trial. This variation in responses leaves survivors unsure of what they may face if they go to the system for help. 

How one initiative might help

The US Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women formed the Sexual Assault Justice Initiative (SAJI) to improve the prosecution response to sexual violence. The office funded seven jurisdictions’ prosecution agencies to implement best practices for sexual assault cases and collect and analyze data to examine how well they are prosecuting cases, looking beyond conviction rates as the sole measure of success. In September, SAJI  launched work with these seven sites.

Led by AEquitas, along with the Urban Institute and Justice Management Institute, the SAJI team developed best practices aimed to improve system response in prosecutors’ offices and among their partners in each locality, including investigators, advocates, and medical forensic examiners.

The Model Response to Sexual Violence for Prosecutors promotes several practices, such as the following:

  • Improving the capacity of prosecutors’ offices to effectively respond to sexual assault by developing prosecutors’ expertise, building or enhancing special units, and building or enhancing collaboration with their partners
  • Building and using a toolkit of effective strategies to maximize the availability and admissibility of relevant evidence while excluding irrelevant and prejudicial evidence; make effective use of experts and expert testimony; educate fact finders about the realities of sexual assault, tactics of people who commit these crimes, and the ways survivors might respond; present the case at trial in a clear and compelling way; communicate effectively and respectfully with survivors throughout the case; and promote survivor safety at all stages of the case
  • Implementing a performance management system that identifies and collects data on outcome measures about cases (e.g., the share of cases reported to police that are referred to prosecution and length of time to receive lab results about evidence collected in the sexual assault kit); evaluates success of the prosecution through the lens of case complexity rather than focusing solely on conviction rates; and obtains direct feedback from survivors

The SAJI team is providing ongoing training and technical assistance to participating sites to help them incorporate these practices into their work. And the sites are digging in. The Office on Violence against Women aims to take the lessons learned in these sites to other jurisdictions to improve the response to sexual assault across the nation.

Although news stories highlighting the experiences and needs of sexual assault survivors have failed to change the national dialogue in the past, SAJI’s ongoing efforts could make this time different.

Photo by John Wehmann.

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