The sickening gang rape and killing of a 23-year-old woman in India has sparked debate around the world about how societies respond to sexual assaults. Rape happens everywhere and much too often — with too few cases resulting in jail time. In Maine, a rape, as reported to police, occurs every 22 hours, 24 minutes. But the state has minimal information about what happens once rape cases enter the legal system. More can be done in Maine to gather information about the crime and how the state’s courts and law enforcement are equipped to respond to it.
People — most often women — face many barriers to reporting rape to police. They may feel shame having to talk about it. They might fear losing control if they report — redoubling the pain of already having their control taken from them. Or they might think telling someone won’t make a difference. They should know they are not alone. Nearly one in every five women and one in every 71 men in the U.S. have been raped at some time in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet sexual violence remains one of the most underreported crimes.
How can Maine better facilitate justice? One of the best places to start is to examine data to understand the problem. But finding even basic information about the outcomes of rape cases is difficult and can only be obtained at individual courts. Maine tracks the number of reports to police of rape, clearance rates and arrest numbers, but it doesn’t keep a centralized record of what happens after law enforcement finishes with a case. We wanted to research trends over time of how many of those arrested are convicted in Maine, but no one knows for sure what the conviction rates actually are.
We do know that most rapes are not reported to police. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network states that about 54 percent of rapes go unreported, though other studies have set the number at 64 percent. A total of 416 rape offenses were reported to Maine police in 2011, according to information prepared by the Uniform Crime Reporting Division. Six percent were deemed unfounded, leaving 391 offenses to investigate. Just 46.3 percent of those cases were cleared, which is similar to the average for Maine during the last 10 years. Seventy-five of the 181 cleared cases resulted in arrests, though it’s not clear how many were for more than one rape. In the end, 19.2 percent of reported rape offenses — and about 10 percent of likely rapes that year — resulted in an arrest.
But we don’t know what happened next. In how many cases did district attorneys decide they had suitable evidence to proceed with prosecution? How many of those cases resulted in a plea deal or incarceration? What was the average prison sentence handed down? National studies have shown that, factoring in unreported rapes, only about 3 percent of rapists ever do time behind bars. How does Maine compare? The point of getting the information is not to fault district attorneys for low conviction rates — as rape cases are probably the most difficult to prosecute. The point of understanding what’s happening is to build awareness, track changes over time and see if there are ways to improve.
The court system in Maine doesn’t track outcomes for any crime, but it could. What the judicial system needs is an electronic case-monitoring system that files court records online and has the ability to sort and collate data. This type of system exists. It’s a matter of the state making it a priority to pay for it. It’s also a matter of understanding the long-term benefits. Having complete, detailed information is essential when deciding how to build upon what’s being done right and improve areas needing reform. Any data collection should allow for a full accounting of the crime’s context and reasons for acquittal or conviction, to better understand the high burden prosecutors face when deciding whether to bring a case to court.
There are many concrete ways for Maine to improve how it handles rape offenses. One basic advancement is to have an online system that tracks cases through to their completion. In addition, Maine must continue to build public knowledge of the crime in ways that call for much more responsibility from men, address victims’ fears and lessen the stigma that makes it so difficult to report attacks to police. Having more victims report rapes is key to stopping the crime from happening to others. So when they actually go to police to report a case, the state can show its respect for their courage by keeping watch over the results.