1.3 Defining and Measuring Success

How do we know whether we are succeeding in efforts to improve our handling of sexual assault cases? How do we measure our progress? Historically, conviction rates have been used as the primary measure of “success” for law enforcement and prosecutors32 because they represented the only readily accessible data. Conviction rates alone, however, are inadequate indicators of the success of a jurisdiction’s response to these crimes.

When difficult or complex cases are “weeded out” before trial or even arrest or charging, the result is a deceptively high conviction rate.33 For example, jurisdictions with high conviction rates may be rejecting cases perceived to be too difficult or complex, whereas jurisdictions with lower conviction rates may be taking such cases to trial —perhaps losing some of them, but affording victims a forum for justice and prosecutors an opportunity to refine and improve their trial skills. This pre-emptive “weeding out” process is rarely the result of conscious or callous disregard for victim and community safety, but rather of office policies and practices that direct the declination or dismissal of sexual violence cases characterized by “difficult”, albeit common factors, including: alcohol use by the victim and/or perpetrator, a current or former relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, lack of physical force, lack of physical injury, lack of victim participation in the prosecution, lack of corroboration, etc.34

However, conviction rates do not capture the more elusive, yet measurable, factors related to the quality of justice. A successful response to complex sexual assault cases may appear daunting, but the characteristics of these cases, when broken down and understood, can be effectively addressed.

These building blocks are: 1) thorough, offender-focused investigations; 2) collaboration with multidisciplinary professionals, including experts; 3) an understanding of victimization and the effects of trauma; 4) the education of colleagues, allied professionals, factfinders, and the community on victimization and the effects of trauma; and 5) a solid understanding of the law, with a willingness to promote change in the law where appropriate.

When prosecutors, law enforcement, medical, and advocacy professionals all understand their roles in relation to the larger response, they are better able to overcome perceived challenges and to support victims throughout the reporting, investigative, and prosecutorial processes.

Indicators of success in prosecution include:

  • Reduced reliance on myths and generalizations in decision-making.
  • Protection of victim privacy and safety consistent with justice.
  • Support of victims throughout the process.
  • Trial strategies that expose predatory behavior.
  • Trial strategies that educate the factfinder.
  • Pleas or convictions litigated to the most appropriate charge and degree.
  • Sentences that account for the nature of the crime, offender’s behavior, and victim impact.
  • Reduced incidence of sexual violence.
  • Increased reporting of sexual violence.
  • Increased referral rates from law enforcement.
  • Increased prosecution rates.
  • Increased trust in the criminal justice system.
  • Identification of serial sexual offenders.
  • Meaningful collaboration with allied professionals.
  • Solicitation and respectfully consideration of victim input.
  • Introduction of all relevant and probative evidence.


32 See Long & Nugent-Borakove, supra note 7.

33 Eric Ramusen, et al., Convictions Versus Conviction Rates: The Prosecutor’s Choice (Dec. 31, 2008), available at: https://kelley.iu.edu/riharbau/RePEc/iuk/wpaper/bepp2008-16-rasmusen-raghav-ramseyer.pdf.

34 For guidance on accounting for case complexity, see RSVP Volume II, Chapter 5.