The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Pathways to Justice: The Movement of Adult Female Sexual Assault Cases Across the Criminal Justice System

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 9:45 AM
Marriott Riverwalk, River Terrace, Upper Parking Level, Elevator Level P2 (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Sharon B. Murphy, Associate Professor, University of New Hampshire, Durham, Durham, NH
Purpose:  The attrition of adult female sexual assault cases across the justice system has gained prominence recently from the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Violence Against Women, victims of sexual assault, victim advocacy organizations, and researchers. Victims of sexual assault have been at the forefront through their reports of traumatization based on interactions with community responders, the length of the criminal justice process, and their expressed desire to be better informed of the steps involved in the process. Efforts are underway in a number of states, as well as internationally, to track the movement of cases across the justice system to examine where and why cases drop out of the system.  We present our data from a pilot study in which we tracked the movement of adult female sexual assault cases from the time a report was made to law enforcement through prosecution. In addition to sexual assault, we simultaneously collected residential burglary data to determine if there are differences in case attrition by crime.

Methods:  The project was a collaboration between the state’s Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, practitioners from law enforcement, health care, advocacy, and university researchers. We developed a case tracking form for gathering data from law enforcement incident reports, prosecutors’ case files, and court records. Twelve communities were selected for the sample and we tracked 125 sexual assault cases and 119 residential burglary cases across the justice system.  Initial selection criteria for eligibility in the study for sexual assault cases included gender (only female sexual assault victim cases were selected in which there was one male suspect), age (victims and suspects were at least 18 years of age at the time of the assault), and year in which the assault occurred (only cases perpetrated during 2008).

Results:  Of the 125 sexual assault cases collected from law enforcement, 30% resulted in an arrest, and of those cases, charges were ultimately dropped by the prosecutor in 57% of the cases.  Of the remaining 16 cases, 41% resulted in a plea agreement and 3% resulted in a conviction on the initial charge.  Lastly, of the 125 cases of sexual assault reported to the police, 12.8% resulted in prosecution.  Comparatively, of the 119 residential burglary cases, 44.5% ended in an arrest, which is significantly higher than the arrest rate for sexual assault. Charges were ultimately dropped by the prosecutor in 56.6% % of the cases. The prosecution rate for burglary was not significantly different from the sexual assault prosecution rate.  Of the burglary cases that were prosecuted, 13% were convicted on the initial charge.  A plea agreement was negotiated in the remaining 87% of cases prosecuted.

Implications:  The data provide promising findings that may improve the criminal justice response to victims of sexual assault. We discuss the findings in a series of recommendations which call for a multidisciplinary approach to the problem of sexual assault case attrition. We present implications for social work practice and research.