The charges filed recently against former International Monetary Fund 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. 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 Justice Department's Crime Victimization Survey. We also know that an estimated 60 percent of these assaults go unreported.
So the question is: Do the 40 percent 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 of those convicted are sentenced to incarceration. In the end, an estimated 1 of 16 rapists spends time in jail.
The prevailing failure to try to convict rape suspects is directly related to the way police and prosecutors treat alleged 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 percent 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.
Few would want the police to waste valuable resources on investigations of crimes that didn't really happen. However, 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 percent of complaints filed, and the proportion of convictions grew, too.
A state-by-state analysis of relevant legislation, policies and crime statistics most likely would 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.
Someone 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.