What do cases involving domestic violence, sexual assault, and childhood sexual abuse all have in common? The multi-faceted answer sheds a needed light on the lack of a coherent societal response to each of these despicable acts. To start, society first needs to recognize that these acts constitute major crimes and must be addressed as such. Regrettably, there is growing evidence that our legal institutions marginalize these crimes and fail to respond to them with the level of seriousness they warrant.
The justice system’s failure to acknowledge the terrible toll these crimes take on their victims and on society in general belies the epidemic nature of the problem. Annually, there are about 1.3 million domestic violence incidents and a similar number of sexual assaults in this country. Furthermore, it is estimated that there are over 42 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the United States alone. While cases involving athletes or other celebrities grab headlines for a snapshot in time, the nameless, faceless victims of domestic violence and sexual assaults live on. We must keep them in mind long after our collective consciousness moves from one sensationalized story to the next. Let us not lose sight of the bigger picture, the one that truly matters.
Victims of domestic violence, sexual assaults, and child sexual abuse all suffer serious trauma, are discouraged from reporting their abuse by a number of complex factors, and are victimized by perpetrators who exert power and control over them, both during, and often even after, the commission of the crimes. These are common threads. But the most significant factor that runs through all three crime categories is the justice system’s dismal failure to properly and effectively handle these cases.
In recent days, the media has become obsessed with the case of Ray Rice, the pro football player who is depicted in a shocking video knocking out his then-fiancee/now-wife in an Atlantic City casino elevator. While much is being discussed about the football commissioner’s wrong-headed and ill-informed approach to the case, the justice system’s inadequate response has received much less attention. Rice’s prosecutor did charge him with an aggravated assault felony but then allowed Rice to enter pretrial intervention, pursuant to which the charges will be dismissed if he does not violate the law again. Accordingly, Rice may walk away from this crime without having a conviction on his record. No harm (except to the victim), no foul.
It has now been reported that this disposition, which is so disproportionate to the extreme level of violence Rice committed, is typical in New Jersey and elsewhere. In many jurisdictions, domestic violence is treated like a simple drug possession charge or a DWI. Given how devastating domestic violence crimes are to their victims, the justice system’s lax approach to these cases is shameful. And we all bear that shame because we permit the present system to endure.
Similarly, the legal system undervalues cases involving sexual assaults. Police investigators too-often place the burden on a recently-traumatized victim to make a premature decision as to whether the police should even investigate the crime. If the victim does not explicitly direct the police to proceed, the case is dropped and the victim is often characterized even in an official police report as “uncooperative.” In contrast, the police treat other types of crimes much differently. They investigate the reported crime and then, typically after consultation with the victim and possibly a prosecutor, they decide if an arrest should be made and the suspect prosecuted. In sexual assault cases, the process is turned on its head – the victim must decide how to proceed before the police investigate. That procedure is unfair to victims and is contrary to law enforcement’s own regulations and to long-standing police practices.
As to cases involving adult survivors of child sex abuse, law enforcement is reluctant to investigate reports of child sexual abuse made after the victim reaches adulthood because such “cold cases” present certain investigative obstacles. But no one said police work is easy – do we allow a child predator to roam free because the case takes some digging by the police to find evidence? Also, many prosecutors refrain from bringing charges in such cases in the absence of extrinsic evidence to corroborate the survivor’s claims. However, prosecutors routinely file cases based solely on the word of victims of robberies, shootings, and other types of crimes.
Inexplicably, adult survivors are treated differently and less fairly. Police investigation of all claims of child sexual abuse must be mandatory for even if charges are not brought because the statute of limitations has expired or for some other valid reason, at least the police may have the name of a perpetrator to keep in a database for future reference. It is well-established that pedophiles – like many domestic violence and sexual assault offenders – are repeat violators. Law enforcement should compile as much information about these offenders as is legally permissible, whether formal charges are instituted or not. Like all crime victims, survivors are entitled to have their voices heard in the halls of justice.
The time has come when we must demand more of our justice system. We must require that police departments and prosecutors’ offices receive proper training in the handling of domestic violence, sexual assaults, and childhood sexual abuse cases. We must make certain that qualified citizen review boards oversee these cases and report their dispositions to the public. As long as our justice system fails to treat these crimes with the seriousness they warrant and continues to undervalue the victims, society in general will feel free to disregard them. The sensationalized case will grab our attention for a minute and then we will forget, yet again.
Change will not come until reforms are instituted from the top of the justice system down to the bottom. We must all press our public officials, both elected and appointed, to be more responsive to these systemic flaws. The common thread that should run through all cases of domestic violence and sexual assaults is that the victims of these crimes be treated fairly, respectfully, and with the ends of justice in mind. It is incumbent upon all of us to do our part to guarantee that they receive nothing less. After all, justice is said to be for the common good.
Submitted by: Neil Jaffee, Legal Counsel, Pursuit of Truth Film www.pursuitoftruthfilm.com