Prosecution of sexual violence is unlike prosecution of other crimes. These offenses pose distinct challenges for prosecutors and other professionals responding to sexual assault 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 sexual violence dynamics. Furthermore, the behavior of sexual assault victims in response to the trauma of sexual violence is often misconstrued.
In recent years, many criminal justice professionals have educated themselves about these dynamics and behaviors, and the public has become increasingly aware of the reality of sexual violence crimes. However, the general public (including jurors) continues to be influenced by myths and misconceptions. According to available research on the handling of sexual violence cases, law enforcement and prosecutors may “weed out” cases with more complex characteristics (e.g., those involving a voluntarily intoxicated victim or an intimate partner relationship) based on a perception or experience with previous sexual violence cases that leads them to believe all such cases are “unwinnable” — that the legal and factual challenges are insurmountable. Disappointingly few cases make it to the courtroom, and even fewer result in conviction.1 What’s more, the problem can be self-perpetuating: to the extent that police and prosecutors are not vigorously pursuing the more complex cases, they are not developing and honing the skills necessary to build sexual violence cases that will result in conviction.
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 complex or challenging cases fall by the wayside early in the process, they are generally not factored into the rate of conviction. As such, this metric is a thin veneer of success because the reality is that serial perpetrators, or those who are clever in their choice of victims, escape justice while their 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.2
Effectively engaging with victims, conducting thorough investigations, and meticulously prosecuting sexual violence provides important benefits for everyone involved in the process, regardless of the rate of conviction. The quality of assistance provided by a fully coordinated network of responders — advocates, medical forensic examiners, law enforcement, and prosecutors — to victims facing traumatic experiences reflects critical measures of system success.
If the conviction rate is not by itself a satisfactory measure of justice and success, what is? A wide variety of meaningful outcomes can occur — those not directly related to the binary result of conviction or acquittal, but which nevertheless help ensure accountability for perpetrators and safety for victims and communities. Such outcomes include victim satisfaction with the criminal justice process itself (as opposed to the disposition), as well as with the prosecutor’s use of every legitimate means to bring about a just outcome. Conviction rates fail to take these measures into account, and therefore a more comprehensive performance management system is needed – one that tracks the use of promising practices in sexual violence prosecutions as well as victim perspectives on how they were treated throughout the process, and incorporates measures of both into its definition of success. Ultimately, the implementation of such a system will help prosecutors achieve a more meaningful quality of justice.
The Sexual Assault Justice Initiative (SAJI) is a project developed in partnership among AEquitas, the Justice Management Institute (JMI), and the Urban Institute (Urban) through funding by the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women. The Initiative challenges prosecutors to look beyond conviction rates as the sole measure of effectiveness in sexual violence prosecutions and to implement, continually evaluate, and refine sustainable prosecution practices that will advance the goals of justice, victim health and safety, and offender accountability.
This document describes procedures aimed at addressing and tracking the full range of desired outcomes beyond conviction rates. But tracking the outcomes is not the ultimate goal. The primary purpose of performance management, as described in this volume, is to help prosecutor’s offices and their partners to continually improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and equity of their response to sexual assault. The data will not by itself say why outcome values have changed, or what needs to be done to improve outcomes. However, basic analysis of performance data can provide useful clues. Each analytic procedure will help to identify patterns that suggest issues the prosecutors’ offices and/or their partners need to address. The outcome measurement and analytic process also help identify potential training and technical assistance needs. This volume provides prosecutors with the basic steps to translate data collection and analysis into actionable goals for change.
This volume is a complement to RSVP Volume I, which focuses on the use of trauma-informed, offender-focused, and victim-centered strategies for prosecuting sexual violence. Volume I provides prosecutors with a roadmap to improve the quality of justice in sexual violence cases by identifying a series of office-level and case-level practices that are tangible, realistic, and data-driven. RSVP Volumes I and II are two parts of a whole: the first focused on strategies for improving prosecution practices, and the second focused on systematically tracking those strategies and analyzing their corresponding outcomes.
The suggestions contained within this volume are by no means definitive. They reflect the initial experiences of seven pilot sites over an approximately two-year period; the collective experience of AEquitas, JMI, and Urban in their work with prosecutors and allied professionals responding to sexual violence cases throughout the country and around the world; and the reported experience of sexual violence survivors.
We hope this work, which provides a starter set of tools for gauging efforts to improve the response to cases of sexual violence, will encourage considerably more experimentation in ongoing efforts to further refine the evaluation of prosecutorial success.