Senate Hearing on Rape Addresses Weaknesses in Criminal Justice System

By Addison Pollock, Fundraising Intern

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Sept. 14 addressed the failure of law enforcement to report, investigate and handle rape cases with “compassion and transparency.”

Following the opening statement by Committee Chair Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA), Susan B. Carbon, Director of the Office of Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice, delved right into examining the different forms of rape and how some can be pushed to the margins. Certain cases, such as incest, date rapes, and those inflicted on the elderly, often are not given the attention they deserve.

Carbon further discussed society’s tendency to taboo the crime into obscurity, which contributes to inadequate practices by police. Throughout the hearing, examples of insensitive and irresponsible police handlings were told: leaving rape kits for months without investigation, making the victim pay for her (or his) own rape kit, blaming the victim for dressing in a way that enticed the perpetrator, aggressively interrogating victims by accusing them of drug use, and so on. Speakers illustrated how this harsh and insensitive treatment makes survivors reluctant to report rape; as a result, reliable statistics — which policy-makers need to appropriately allocate resources — are scarce.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey outlined what it takes for a police department to effectively address the issue: appoint a “reliable director for the city’s Special Victims Unit;” hire a trained staff experienced in working with sexual assault survivors; foster communication with other units; and partner with “the community, medical and mental health providers, prosecutors, and victim advocacy organizations.” He also spoke about how to advance accountability through audits on unfinished cases.

Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal, who is also a NOW board member and former NOW president, touched upon many additional points. She stressed the evidential importance of rape kits in linking them with “serial rapists” and how the failure to act on reports makes it harder to prosecute such offenders for all their crimes should they finally be arrested.

Smeal also pointed out one of the most obvious reasons for police mismanagement of rape victims: Most police officers are men. She stated, “[We] need to recruit more women in policing . . . in fact, there is a culture in the police departments that must be changed toward women. I’ve worked on this program for four decades . . . women are still only 12 percent of police departments overall.”

Another crucial point Smeal made was the loopholes in the criminal justice system’s definition of rape. The FBI Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) defines forcible rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Assaults or attempts to commit rape by force or threat of force are also included; however, statutory rape (without force) and other sex offenses are excluded.”

Smeal points out that there is no accountability for rapes facilitated by drugs and alcohol, scenarios of unconscious victims, certain modes of penetration, and rapes involving homosexuals or adult male victims.

Sen. Specter concluded that the hearing was of great importance, and he would be sending a letter to the FBI demanding a properly updated UCR definition. We hope to see further progress in this critical matter, which doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

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