Reforming Law Enforcement Training Could Reduce The High Rate of Sexual Assault Case Attrition

Washington state is addressing sexual assault case attrition via a first-in-the nation external law enforcement and prosecutorial sexual assault case review program.

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Students at the University of Texas at Austin show their support for sexual assault survivors during a demonstration in October 2018. (Salvador Castro For KUT / Creative Commons)

Sexual assault cases are almost never prosecuted, and even when they are, the chance of conviction and actual incarceration is extremely rare. Appalling data reveals “only 9 percent of all rapists get prosecuted. Only 5 percent of cases lead to a felony conviction. Only 3 percent of rapists will spend a day in prison. The other 97 percent walk free.” And findings from a more recent study similarly confirm that “for every 100 rapes and sexual assaults of teenage girls and women reported to police, only 18 lead to an arrest.”

So what are the reasons why these cases don’t get prosecuted? And why are there so few arrests in these cases? And finally, why is it that when sexual assault survivors actually do report assaults to law enforcement, those survivors often drop out of the investigation? 

These three points in the criminal justice system’s response to sexual assaults represent the points in the investigation where cases are closed—and thus, points of attrition in the criminal justice system’s response to sexual assault. Examining the criminal justice system’s response at these points in the investigatory process may provide critical information regarding the ongoing high rate of attrition in these cases and why many survivors do not believe the criminal justice system is capable of advancing any semblance of justice. 

Washington state has started addressing the imperative of sexual assault case attrition in a very unique way.  The state legislature, led by state Representative Tina Orwall, has enacted legislation creating a case review program to examine the law enforcement and prosecutorial response to sexual assault cases. And those findings will then be used to reform law enforcement training to improve victim-centered and trauma informed training protocols. 

Similar training for prosecutors will complement established law enforcement training protocols. Going forward, the legislative plan is to seek ways to reform both law enforcement and prosecutorial training to better serve sexual assault survivors and advance justice for those survivors. 


In order to truly examine the nature of attrition in sexual assault cases, we must examine the case from the beginning to the end of the criminal justice system’s response.


The unique nature of this legislative program lies in the fact that the case review program team will be examining both law enforcement and prosecutorial case files and then using those findings to reform law enforcement training. This sexual assault case review program will be conducted annually and will focus on a single jurisdiction within Washington State each year. 

Moreover, this sexual assault case review program is the only sexual assault case review program in the country that is reviewing both law enforcement and prosecutorial case files. Other cities around the country, notably Philadelphia and New York City, have limited their case review programs to only the review of law enforcement case files. The legislators and advocates that have developed this Washington case review program have come to understand that in order to truly examine the nature of attrition in these cases, the case review program must examine the case from the beginning to the end of the criminal justice system’s response. This first-in-the nation sexual assault case review program should become a national best practice for any jurisdiction that wants to reform the criminal justice system’s response to sexual assault survivors and sexual assault cases. 

However, the question remains: Can reforming law enforcement and prosecutorial training protocols begin to address the underlying factors behind the high rate of sexual assault case attrition? This bold legislative experiment will be moving forward into unchartered territory. 

Can case attrition be addressed through improved law enforcement training? Or are the reasons underlying case attrition beyond the reach of law enforcement and/or prosecutorial training? 

Washington’s legislature, led by Orwall, is moving forward to answer that critical question. 

For far too long, sexual assault survivors have been denied basic justice through the criminal justice system’s response to sexual assault cases. This groundbreaking legislative agenda is now paving the way to begin the arduous process of restoring some measure of confidence in the criminal justice system’s response to sexual assault survivors and sexual assault cases—and to begin advancing justice for all survivors.

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About

Antoinette Bonsignore, J.D., is a rape kit reform advocate as well as an advocate for domestic and sexual violence survivors. She is currently serving as a legal and prosecutorial analyst for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission and working to reform the law enforcement and prosecutorial response to sexual assault cases. You can find her on Twitter @AntSeattle.