Prosecution of sexual violence is unlike prosecution of other crimes. These crimes pose unique challenges for prosecutors and other professionals in the criminal justice system and often involve uniquely vulnerable victims. The crimes themselves — how they happen, who commits them, who is victimized — are widely misunderstood by those who have not been educated about perpetrator-victim dynamics. And the behavior of victims in response to the trauma of these devastating crimes is often misconstrued. While many criminal justice professionals have educated themselves about these dynamics and behaviors, the general public (including jurors) continue to be influenced by myths and misconceptions. Too often, law enforcement and prosecutors “weed out” the more difficult cases along the way, based on a perception that the cases will prove to be “unwinnable” —that the legal and factual challenges are insurmountable. Disappointingly few cases make it to the courtroom and even fewer result in conviction. Moreover, the problem is self-perpetuating: to the extent that police and prosecutors are not vigorously pursuing more challenging cases, they are not developing and honing the skills necessary to build sexual assault cases that will result in convictions.
However, conviction rates tell only part of the story about whether a prosecutor’s office — or a prosecutor — is successful in handling cases involving sexual violence. If difficult or challenging cases fall by the wayside early in the process, they are generally not factored into the rate of conviction. While there may be a thin veneer of success in terms of conviction rate, the reality is that serial perpetrators,1 or those who are clever in their choice of victim, escape justice, while victims who have been violated in the most personal and devastating way are left to their own remedies, without the support of the criminal justice system.
If conviction rates are not a reliable measure of success, what is? The answer lies in the quality of the prosecution response. In prosecuting sexual violence, more so than with other crimes, the process is as important as – or more important than — the legal outcome in achieving a just result. The entire process of thorough investigation and meticulous prosecution yields many benefits, regardless of whether any individual case results in conviction:
- Prosecutors and investigators hone skills and refine strategies that increase the likelihood of conviction in future cases.
- Better prepared cases shine a light on the full range of an accused’s conduct, exposing predatory behavior, exploitation, manipulation, and intimidation.
- Serial offenders are identified so that future victimizations can be prevented.
- Evidence is developed that may be admissible in other cases involving the same perpetrator.
- Trauma-informed responses reduce re-traumatization in victims.
- Victims see their cases are taken seriously and obtain a measure of validation and closure.
- Victim safety, privacy, and confidentiality is respected and protected.
- Victims are encouraged to report crimes.
- Community relations are strengthened by consistent messaging from prosecutors in a position of leadership.
- Communities are made safer.
- Jurors and judges are educated in dynamics of sexual assault and how trauma may affect victim behavior.
- Improved coordination and cooperation between criminal justice professionals allows all involved to share information, knowledge, and expertise — streamlining the process for victims and allowing agencies to make the best use of available resources.
The Sexual Assault Justice Initiative (SAJI) is a project developed in partnership among AEquitas, the Justice Management Institute, and the Urban Institute. The Initiative challenges prosecutors to look beyond conviction rates as the primary measure of success or effectiveness in sexual violence prosecutions and to implement, continually evaluate, and refine sustainable prosecution practices that will advance the goals of justice, victim safety, and offender accountability. This document sets forth the Model Response to Sexual Violence for Prosecutors (RSVP) – the cornerstone of SAJI’s proposal for improving the prosecution response to sexual violence. The RSVP Model is a collection of office- and case-level promising practices, identified through research and the experience of both AEquitas staff and partnered prosecutors, that positively impact case outcomes by using measures of success beyond conviction rates.
The RSVP Model also provides a performance management system as a tool for offices and individual prosecutors to measure their effectiveness in achieving intended outcomes. The Model proposes methodical, routine evaluations of prosecution practices that can be refined as necessary in response to evolving research, emerging issues, or changing conditions in a jurisdiction. It is intended to serve as a comprehensive tool for making decisions on office policy and individual cases of sexual violence. When implemented, the Model’s policies and practices will allow for all adult sexual assault victims who interact with prosecutors across the United States to benefit from prosecution practices that are trauma-informed, victim-centered, offender-focused, research-informed, and sustainable over the course of changes in administration and personnel.
The Introduction portion of this document, found in Chapter 1, explains in detail the problems that have arisen as a result of overreliance on conviction rates in cases of sexual violence. It identifies the core principles that should inform a model response to these crimes to further the goals of justice — i.e., offender accountability and victim and community safety. It discusses how we can define “success” in the prosecution of sexual violence, and how we can measure our location on that continuum as well as our improvement efforts.
RSVP Volume I is divided into two parts. The first focuses on office-level leadership, providing information and tools to assess current practices and identify areas for improvement. This chapter is especially directed to chief prosecutors, unit chiefs, or other prosecutors within an office who are responsible for creating, implementing, and promoting policies and practices affecting the prosecution of sexual violence. The second section is intended for prosecutors handling cases of sexual violence at any level within an office (e.g., grand jury unit, sex crimes unit, trial unit). This section includes specific strategies and tools enabling prosecutors to achieve positive case outcomes at every stage of the prosecution, from initial case review through final disposition and sentencing.
RSVP Volume II, a companion to RSVP Volume I, focuses on performance management. It provides a method to measure improvements in performance as a result of implementing the policies and practices set forth in the Volume I, as well as concrete, easy-to-use tools for doing so. Volume II can be found on AEquitas’ website.