Our country has a prison problem. However, counteractive to the intention of many of the laws passed, violent offenders are rarely put behind bars. Although many smaller factors may feed into why violent offenders go unnoticed, uncaught, or unprosecuted, a broader reasoning can be due to our criminal justice system’s lack of training or experience in special victim cases.
Unlike the popular show Law and Order SVU leads you to believe, special victim (or sex crimes) units are rare in this country. The real departments of sex crime often focuses on the very young, the very elderly–a demographic that is often reluctant or unable to report their abuse–and any victims of sexual assault, rape, or incest. Only a handful exist in larger towns, and although the officers that work in those departments advocate for the victim, the court systems still do not.
Rarely do cases of rape see courtrooms, and even more rarely are cases taken seriously by the untrained police officers that handle these sensitive cases. Although the intention of the officers may not be directly malicious, their lack of experience in social work and the imbedded rape culture within the justice system barre many victims from seeing justice.
Creating more special victim units across this country – in major cities and smaller towns – could help change the growing prison population, and would be beneficial for millions of Americans. Until our criminal justice system takes these crimes seriously, everyone is at risk of being hurt by the system that fails to catch so many violent offenders.
Why We Need an SVU Reform
RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) is the country’s largest resource and anti-sexual violence organization. The statistics they have managed to collect on the realities of rape and sexual assault is staggering to behold. RAINN estimates that for every three rapes, only one will be reported to authorities. Of those that are reported, only 5% will be investigated by authorities.
Why are so few rape cases reported to the authorities? The main reason is the prevalence of rape culture in the criminal justice system. Rape culture is often defined as the acceptance of violence against women in the media and the blaming of victims of assault. “You were raped? By who? What were you wearing? Were you drunk? You probably deserved it,” are all statements that are a result of rape culture.
For victims, seeking justice through the police is a daunting task. Often times victims of assault were attacked by people they know (RAINN states 3 out of 4 victims know their attacker), so bringing them to the courts could be dangerous to the victim (potential for more attacks), could be psychologically traumatizing (being forced to face their attacker again and in public), and could be seen as a threat to their family structure.
When victims recant, it is not because they were lying about the attack, but because they thought reporting the attack was more dangerous than putting the perpetrator behind bars. When it comes to false reports the common perception is only 2-8% are false (although as one writer with the National Review pointed out, this means only 2-8% are unable to proceed through a trial, but could still be true accusations).
This is where special victim units can step in: by creating safe environments for victims to report their abuse with the full support of the officers working their case. By increasing the amount of a special victim units to police precincts around the country, officers can have the specialty of social workers, counselors, and victim’s advocates to help try and convict heinous cases of assault and rape in their community.
Although reports may not increase initially, having the added support of specialists that know how to handle these sensitive cases could greatly increase the victim’s chances of following through a trial. These advocates will also be aware of issues such as recurrence of abuse and intimate partner violence; topics that many police officers aren’t aware exist in their community.
What’s Happening Now
With the growing recognition of rape culture in our society, it would be easy to assume that change is well on the horizon. However, as is evident in our current state, social justice reform is slow within the police and justice system. Luckily some states are taking action.
California has made the news more than once this year with their outstanding efforts to change the current laws on rape in their state. First, after the devastating Brock Turner conviction (or lack thereof), California passed a law in August that requires a minimum sentencing of six years in state prison for a conviction of rape or assault of an unconscious or intoxicated person (although some say that minimum sentencing is the wrong response to have to the upsetting Stanford rape case).
California also just passed a law that eliminated their statute of limitations on rape cases, an archaic and common issue preventing victims from seeking justice. Currently, only seventeen states have no statute of limitation on rape cases; a sobering reality when considering the amount of children who fall victim to abuse and can never report as adults.
Both of these recent moves by the California legislature have a victim-centered approach, but laws are only a portion of the battle. Inundating police departments with sensitivity training and embracing the growing need for social workers would be the next step in the right direction for protecting the interests of the people.
The structure of our police and criminal justice system needs a complete remodel. Racism, rape culture, and prison overpopulation with non-violent offenders all run rampant in our struggling criminal justice framework. Although change may be slow, we could be seeing a more positive future for special victims if more departments hire specialists and invest money in the real issues that affect and harm our communities. Increasing the amount of special victim units could be a small piece to the puzzle of reforming our broken system.
By Katie McBeth
About the author: Katie McBeth is a freelance writer out of Boise, ID. She is an intersectional feminist, owner of a small private zoo, and can occasionally be found at music festivals cheering on her favorite indie acts. You can follow her animal and writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth.
** Featured Photo courtesy of NBC.**