Even I love watching Olivia Benson, Stabler and all the other characters in Law and Order SVU. Shows like this have, unfortunately, skewed the real-life law enforcement and criminal justice system when it comes to sexual violence.
When working with the public, we often hear, “Why isn’t the justice system moving faster?” We also hear statements like “The system failed us” and “They are getting a slap on the wrist.” We also hear statements like “Well, they did this on ‘Law and Order,’ so why can’t we do it or get justice like that?”
When we meet clients and/or families for the first time, and are working through the law enforcement and criminal justice system, we tell them, “It doesn’t happen like you see on TV”
According to the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN) (2021), out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 of perpetrators will walk free. Out of those 1,000 reports only 310 are reported to law enforcement, only 50 reports lead to arrests, 28 cases will lead to felony convictions, and only 25 perpetrators will be incarcerated (RAINN, 2021).This means that out of the 1,000 sexual assaults, two out of three assaults go unreported.
Due to these statistics, victims and survivors have a reason to mistrust the system and therefore, reports to law enforcement are slim. What they are seeing on TV not only gives them false hope of receiving justice, it also gives the criminal justice system a bad reputation when cases do not move forward. Let us not forget Law and Order SVU happens in New York State where laws and processes regarding sexual assault cases are very different. In Minnesota, there is not always a designated law enforcement unit that investigates sexual assaults and sexually violent crimes. Instead, these crimes are placed with patrol officers or an overworked investigator.
You may be asking, “Why don’t victims/survivors report to law enforcement?” Well, there are multiple reasons that can include but are not limited to protecting a family member or close friend, preventing future sexual assaults or escalations, believing there is no proof of assault, believing it is a personal matter, and believing it was not important enough to report (RAINN, 2021). These are just some of the reasons we hear at Support Within Reach.
Court systems are another area in which victims/survivors feel a burden. The court system can be a long and exhausting — lasting for years, in some cases.
During the pandemic, for example, cases were backed up and jury trials were put on hold. Now that things are getting back to normal, prosecutors, judges, and all court officials are very busy trying to get cases through the system. To add to the frustration there is a backlog in testing Sexual Assault Nurse Examination test kits (commonly called rape kits). These tests on average run a six-month testing timeframe, so even if the investigation moves fast, the prosecution is waiting for the evidence which means court must wait as well.,
What can we do to reduce the stigma of reporting? The first thing is start by believing someone when they come forward, even if you are the only one that believes them. Believing them can give them hope that others will also.
Then the disclosure could very well work its way toward a law enforcement report. If you are a community support professional, you can call an advocate from Support Within Reach to help the victim/survivor though the process. Remember it is not what you see on TV. We must remain optimistic that victims/survivors will get the justice they deserve.
Kori Nelson is a development and volunteer coordinator with Support Within Reach.