When dealing with statistics its important to check not only your figures but also your assumptions.
For example, if a government agency, such as the CPS, publishes a report with the title ‘Violence Against Women’ then the natural assumption is that all the data in the report relates to prosecutions where the victim was female.
Similarly, when that same report includes separate sections for ‘sexual offences including rape’ and ‘sexual offences exclusing rape’ along with just ‘sexual offences’ as a separate category under the heading ‘child abuse’ then its reasonable to think, at first glance’ that the data for the first two categories will relate to adults, while the data prosecutions of sexual offences against minors (including rape offences) will fall under the sexual offence category in the child abuse section. Such an approach to the data would be clear, limit the risk of double counting and it would be entirely consistent with the manner in which the police have recorded rape offences in their statistics since 2002-3, under which seperate categories are used to record offences by both gender (male/female) and age (victim over 16, under 16 and under 13).
This impression was further reinforced by a case study in the child abuse section which notes, amongst other things, that:
The defendant pleaded guilty to two offences of oral rape, 17 of inciting a sexual offence with a child S 10 SOA 2003, 25 of making indecent images of children and three of distributing indecent images of children. He was sentenced to a discretionary life sentence with a 15 year minimum term.
The reference to oral rape in this case study tend sto reinforce the impression that rape offences against children are covered by the child abuse section rather than the general rape section of the report, particular as all the case studies in the rape section relate to cases in which the victim was and adult female.
Unfortunately, closer examination of the CPS report indicates that this is not the practice adopted by the CPS as, under the heading ‘Equality Issues’ the report notes, for rape, that:
The recording of victim gender improved up to 72% in 2010-11, but is not robust enough to include in this report.
Recording of victim age has improved up to 65%, but is not robust enough to include in this report.
All of which indicates that the prosecution and conviction data for rape, given by the report, includes offences in which the complainant/victim was male and/or a minor, and while this doesn’t affect the CPS’s figures for conviction rates from prosecutions it does have a significant impact on the calculations for attrition rates and from conviction rates relative to the number or rapes reported to the police.
How big a difference? Well, for 2010/11 this adds a further 6,000 reported rapes a year to the baseline figures for the last 2 years and this, in turn, gives a revised national attrition rate for rape cases of 70-72% and rate of rape convictions, relative to reported cases, of 9-10%. This is still a considerable improvement on the system’s historic low point for rape convictions relative to reported cases (5.5% in 2004-5) but nothing like the improvement in results that my previous (erroneous) calculation suggested.
So, bearing all this in mind, I’ve updated this article with the revised figures and tables and, where necessary, amended the text of the article according. I’ve also added a new section which looks – from the data – at the impact that widespread media reporting of conviction rates relative to reported cases, rather than prosecutions, had on the overall trends in reported cases.
The Crown Prosecution Service has published a new report on its performance in dealing with cases involving violence against women (pdf), which covers the year 2010-11.
Before getting down to a bit of number crunching, its well worth flagging up the opening paragraph of the report’s executive summary, which makes some striking observations about the CPS’s new approach to performance management:
We have changed the format of the 2010-11 VAWG report to reflect the move within the CPS to focus more on the quality of our prosecutions, moving away from assessing our prosecution outcomes solely by attrition rates. We no longer set targets, but focus more on the trend in prosecution performance locally in each Area, compared with the national average, alongside the quality of prosecutions. This report focuses more on an analysis of the key prosecution issues in each VAWG strand of crimes – domestic violence, rape, sexual offences, human trafficking, prostitution, forced marriage, honour based violence, female genital mutilation, child abuse and pornography. A number of case studies are used to illustrate some good practice from Areas.
Okay, so the CPS has done away with attrition targets, i.e. measuring performance in terms of the number of reported cases which lead to an actual prosecution, and instead the focus will be on trends on local performance, compared to the national average, and ‘quality of prosecutions’, which the CPS will be illustrating with cases studies showing examples of good practice.
This would be fine, if the report actually included any data on local trends, but so far as rape cases are concerned it doesn’t.
What we do get, in this year’s report, is a table showing the number of prosecutions, convictions and acquittals for each police force area in England and Wales for 2010-11, but no comparative data for any previous years (and so, no trend) plus a number of cases studies, which may provide some interesting insights into develop practice but are otherwise purely anecdotal – and, of course, the plural of anecdote is not evidence.
Looking at the data that the CPS does provide, it quickly become apparent that its actually rather difficult to get a proper handle on just exactly how well, or how badly, the system is performing when it comes to prosecuting rape cases. Under the heading ‘CPS Performance Management Data’ the report provides the following information about the CPS’s activities at a national level:
From CPS case management data, there was a six percent increase in volume of cases forwarded to the CPS by the police for charging reaching 8,130 in 2010-11, of which the proportion charged increased slightly to reach 37%. However accuracy of flagging of cases has fluctuated over the year, reaching 94% by the end of 2010-11.
Leaving aside the fluctuation is the accuracy with which cases has been flagged, 37% of 8,130 cases passed to the CPS by the police comes to just over 3,000 cases (3,008 +/- 40) in which defendants were actually charged, but as the report goes on to note, rather more than 3,000 prosecutions actually took place during the year.
From CPS data, 3,867 (97%) of cases initially flagged as rape were finally prosecuted for the principal offence categories of ‘sexual offences. including rape’. or more serious principal offences of ‘homicides’ or ‘offences against the person’. Of these 3,604 were for sexual offences including rape; seven for homicide and 256 for offences against the person.
So, in addition to the 3,000 new prosecutions generated in 2010/11 there were at least another 800 carried forward from previous years, and of that’s not confusing enough already, the report goes on to add that:
From CPS case management data, as in table 2, the volume of defendants prosecuted has increased over the last year by 10% to 4,208, with successful prosecutions increasing in volume by 9% to 2,465, However, the proportion of convictions out of all cases prosecuted has fallen slightly from 59.4% in 2009-10 to 58.6% 2010-11. Although convictions after trial rose slightly, jury acquittals have increased – out of all reasons for unsuccessful outcomes, those resulting from acquittals rose from just under 45% in 2009-10 to just under 48% in 2010-11.
Okay, so obvious we have a number of cases in which there are multiple defendants, which add another 400 prosecutions or so to the total and an increase in the total volume of both prosecutions and convictions, against which we also have a slight fall in the overall conviction rate and an increase in acquittals where trials are contested, and for the latter, the CPS provide the following ‘explanation’:
The rise in jury acquittals tends to suggest that more work may be needed with partners to address public awareness and challenge myths and stereotypes, which have traditionally led to high jury acquittal rates in sexual cases.
Does it really?
Who knows for sure – certainly not the CPS or they’d have provided some evidence to back up their assertion that juror attitudes are to blame for the rise in acquittals.
Before anyone gets offended by the skeptical tone of that last comment, let me clarify the position vis-a-vis what we actually know, from research, about these ‘traditional’ myths and stereotypes and their potential impact in rape cases.
What we actually have, from a number of research studies, most of which come from the US and Australia – although some research has been conducted in the UK – is indirect evidence that juror attitudes toward rape and preconceived notions of how rape victims should behave, if they’ve actually been raped, can exert an influence on the outcome of rape trial, most commonly in favour of defendants.
Well. because the evidence that we do have comes from two main sources; mock jury trials, in which a panel of volunteer jurors is shown a simulated rape trial and asked to give a verdict while being observed by researchers, and contextual studies in which transcripts of actual rape trials are analysed for particular features – for example, whether or not the complainant had been drinking alcohol prior to the rape, etc – which are then cross-referenced against the actual outcomes of the cases included in the study. What these studies tell us is, for example, that juries can be much more reluctant to convict in cases where the complainant was intoxicated at the time the alleged rape took place, unless there’s physical evidence of force/violence to back up their allegation, and that some jurors go into rape trials with preconceived and rather stereotypical views on exactly how complainants should behave if they have actually been raped, views which tend to work against those complainant whose behaviour after the alleged rape does not confirm to those stereotypes.
One of the classic examples of this type of stereotypical thinking relates to rapes which occur in and around the workplace, where it assumed that a ‘genuine’ victim should report the rape to the police straight away, but even if they don’t, they should at least do everything possible to avoid coming into contact with a work colleague who assaulted them until they pluck up the courage to contact the police. In reality, its not that uncommon for women who’ve been raped by a work colleague to continue to work with individual and make an effort to maintain a professional ‘front’ in the workplace, regardless of how they feel about them, particularly if the colleague holds a much more senior position in the company/organisation, one from which they could engineer the complainants dismissal if they were to ‘kick up a fuss’ about being raped.
The kind of evidence were dealing with here tends to be much more nuanced than the kind of public discourse one typically finds in the media around public attitudes to rape; less about ‘victim blaming, although that does come into it in sme instances, and more about issues which jurors see – sometimes mistakenly – as raising reasonable doubts about the accuracy of complainant’s testimony in case where physical evidence is either lacking or unilluminating, nevertheless, it is fair to say that there is some general evidence that juror attitudes and preconceptions are certainly capable of influencing the outcome of rape trial and that where this does occur, its more likely that this influence will work against rather than in favour of the complainant.
Nevertheless, this is only indirect evidence – the law in the UK, and in other countries where these studies have been undertaken, precludes both the direct observation of jury deliberations in actual trials, even covertly, and the post-trial questioning of jurors, even for research purposes and this limits the extent to which we can legitimate apply this evidence to our consideration of the outcome of actual rape trials. Although there is general evidence that juries are more reluctant to convict in the complaint was drunk at the time of the alleged rape we cannot just assume that that’s why a jury returned a not guilty verdict in a specific case, even if complaint was drunk at the time of the alleged assault. It may have been a factor in the jury’s thinking, but it may not and the decision to acquit may easily have rested on something else in the case which the prosecutor might easily have overlooked but which, nevertheless, persuaded the jury that there was reasonable doubt about the accuracy of the victim’s testimony.
For that reason, there are ample grounds to view the CPS’s assertion that the rise in acquittals can be attributed to the malign influence of rape myths and stereotypes with a degree of suspicion – without at least some evidence to support that assertion then I’m afraid the CPS’s remarks fall into the general category of ‘bullshit excuses’*, as does its suggestion that the ‘solution’ to this issue might somehow lie in working with partners to ‘challenge myths and stereotypes’, a proposition that amounts to nothing more more than a bit of general handwaving in the absence of any suggestions as to how this might be achieved or evidence that it might prove to be effective.
*For the avoidance of any doubt, I’m not saying here that juror preconceptions based on these myths and stereotypes aren’t a factor at all – they are, in general terms, even if one cannot say for definite whether and what extent they might influence any particular trial. What I am saying, however, is that its the prosecutor’s job to try and overcome any such preconceptions when putting forward their case, so its notreally a valid excuse for failure – in general terms – unless the CPS can point to something specific in either the law or trial procedure which currently prevents them from tackling such issues.
Okay, so its fair to say that we have some issues here in terms of data quality and accuracy and in terms of some the reasoning that the CPs is deploying in an effort to manage expectations in relation to its own performance and, by implication, the performance of the criminal justice system in general.
Whatever else this report provides, its doesn’t provide – for my money – a clear picture of just how well, or how badly, the system deals with rape cases. The statistical information just isn’t good enough – in fact, the CJS’s entire approach to collating and presenting statistical information about rape case is, to say the least, sub-optimal. Nevertheless, and with a bit of work, it is possible to fill in some of the many gaps left by the CPS and arrive at a rather better, if still approximate, picture of how the system is doing overall. And so, to begin at the beginning, lets start be looking at the data for attrition, as it relates to rape cases.
Attrition means simply the number of reported rape cases which don’t, for various reasons, result in a prosecution and, broadly speaking, gives us a picture of just how well, or how badly, the police are doing when it comes investigating rape allegations and collecting the evidence necessary for viable prosecutions.
Inevitably, in this whole process, some rape complaints fall by the wayside for a variety of reasons, which can include :-
– False allegations.
Yes, they do exist, although the best available evidence suggests that the number of genuinely false allegations is reasonably low (2-3%) and no greater than the figure for other offences. That said, the issue of false allegations is rather more complex than some people seem to think. Although the two most common reasons for false rape allegations do still appear to be either malice/revenge or for providing cover for sexual infidelity or sexual activity likely to meet with family disapproval, e.g. loss of virginity, cases have emerged in Home Office research that should give people pause for thought when it comes to any preconceived notions they might have about the circumstances in which false allegations can, and do, arise.
For example, one of the cases flagged up in a Home Office study of attrition in rape cases was that of a young, South Asian woman who falsely claimed to have been raped, by an unknown and unidentified assailant, in an effort to prevent her family shipping her overseas for an arranged marriage that she didn’t want to enter into.
– Genuine mistakes.
You might be inclined to wonder how, exactly, a women could be mistaken about being raped but it nevertheless does happen, even if it doesn’t happen very often. A typical scenario here is that of intoxication sufficient to leave a woman with only sketchy memories of the previous evening events, enough to leave them fearing that they may have been raped but not enough to be sure – and where such cases are reported promptly, a physical examination is usually sufficient to confirm that, no, she didn’t have sex with whoever it was she might vaguely remember flirting with and that she, therefore, has nothing to worry about.
Genuine mistakes can also arise out of well-intentioned third party reports, in which the individual making the report has misheard or misinterpreted a conversation and jumped to the wrong conclusion – again, these are rare occurrance but not entirely unknown; and there are also some very rare instances of reports arising out of hypnogogic/hypnopompic hallucinations.*
*I’ve actually seen an anonymised case report of just such a case, which occurred in a hospital and was, luckily, captured on CCTV.
– Delusory allegations
There also some instances of rape reported by women with serious mental health problems in which the allegations are, on investigation, shown to be entirely delusory. However, this is an area that has to dealt with extremely carefully as there is also some limited evidence of the existence of serial offenders who deliberately target women with known mental health problems in the expectation that these women will not be believed if and when they report having been raped.
Overall, these make up a very small proportion of the number of reported rapes which don’t result – for obvious reasons – in a prosecution.
Amongst the more common reasons for attrition there are a sizeable number of cases in which the complainant withdraws their complaint or otherwise refuses to cooperate with the investigation, and this can happen for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes its because women are put off by the way they are treated during the investigation or by the prospect of going through the trial process, issues that can be addressed, particularly with investment in high quality victim support services. In some cases, sadly, women can be traumatised by their experience of being raped to the extent that cases are dropped for the simple reason that proceeding with the investigation would have a serious adverse impact on their mental health and wellbeing – this can also occur after charges have been laid, in fact CPS figures for 2007-2010 indictate that around 1-1.5% of rape prosecutions fail due to the impact of the prosecution on the victim’s mental health.
In other cases, investigations fold before charges are preferred because the complaint has a ‘change of heart’ in relation to the alleged perpetrator, who is typically either a partner or ex-partner. This can be due to intimidation, but in many cases what tips the balance is either a reconcilliation or the presence of children in the relationship, and its difficult to see how the police could reasonably be criticised for failing to bring charges in these cases, if – as is so often the case – the only real evidence they have to work with is the complainant’s testimony.
There are also cases that the police are, unfortunately, entirely unable to investigate either for juridictional reasons – every year there are some women who are raped on overseas holidays who, for various reasons, don’t actually report the rape until they return to the UK – or because the complainant gives the police nothing whatsoever to work with in terms of either forensic evidence or a viable description of the alleged perpetrator – although where attrition has been studies there its also suggested that, in some of these cases, the police would have had enough to work with had they not botched the initial stages of the investigation by failing to obtain forensic evidence that could have assisted them with their investigation.
So far, what we’ve looked at are some of the reasons why reported cases are dropped, but it also has to be remembered some cases remain open, often for a considerable number of years, without generating a prosecution for the simple reason that the police do have the evidence they need to identify the perpetrator, they haven’t caught up with them yet and that highlight one of the difficulties that arises out of the official statistics as they relate to pre-charge attrition in rape cases, because nowhere do either the police or MoJ provide any data on the number of cases that are actually dropped, as opposed to those remain open and on file, let alone a breakdown of the main reason(s) for which cases have been dropped.
Although we have data for the annual number of reported rapes and the annual number of prosecutions, from which some attrition figures can be generated, we cannot get to a true figure for attrition because we simply don’t know how many of the cases which don’t lead to a prosecution, in any given year, are still live and, at least notionally, under investigation at the end of that year. We have data to work with, but no audit trail and without that audit trial its impossible to get an accurate picture of just exactly how well, or how badly, the police might be doing.
Nevertheless, there is enough data out there to provide an approximate comparison of police performance at force level and establish a baseline for any future trend data, based on a combination of recorded crime statistics and CPS data, and this gives us the following ‘performance table’ for attrition in rape cases for the last two years (2009-10 and 2010-11).
& City of London
The table is sorted according to change in attrition between 2009/10 and 2010/11 such that a negative change means a reduction in attrition, etc. The actual attrition figures given show the percentage of reported cases that did not result in a prosecution for each year, however, in order to allow for the lag between cases being reported and prosecuted, the attrition figure is calculated using the number of prosecutions for the year and a two year average which includes the preceding year – so for 2009-10 we’re using the prosecution figures for 2009-10 and the average number of cases reported annual for 2008-2010.
Even allowing for all the many caveats that go with this data, its clear that for every ten rape cases reported to the police in England and Wales between 2008 and 2010, seven failed to generate a prosecution and that there are considerable variations in attrition between different police forces – in the worst performing areas, attritition rates are currently in the region of 85-90%.
Moreover, local attrition rates are only moderately correlated with local reporting rates for rapes offences (0.34, based on reported cases per 1,000 population) and are uncorrelated with the raw number of reported cases (-0.01) or with the overall size of population (-0.08), all of which strongly suggests that a sizeable part of the variation in attrition rates between different police force areas can be attributed to local variations in police/CPS performance and practice, rather than to variations in type of cases reported to the police.
Prosecutions and Convictions
As I’ve already noted, the CPS has, this year, chosen to flag up public attitudes, rape myths and stereotypes as the apparent cause of an increase in the number of acquittals at trial, which may or may not be true but equally omits any mention of the data which appeared in last year’s report showing a breaking of the reasons why prosecutions failed to secure a conviction between 2007 and 2010:
|2007 – 08||2007-08 %||2008 – 09||2008 – 09 %||2009 – 10||2009 – 10 %|
|Evidence of victim does
not support case
|Total victim issues||268||18.08%||258||17.47%||255||16.46%|
|Conflict of evidence||159||10.73%||164||11.10%||140||9.04%|
|Essential legal element
|Effect on victim/witness
|Total key reasons||1299||87.65%||1321||89.44%||1408||90.90%|
|All other reasons||146||9.85%||111||7.52%||104||6.71%|
Clearly, there’s more to it than just juries playing awkward – in 9-10% of cases an essential legal element is missing from the prosecution which, more often than not, will mean that they have no evidence that sex even took place.
What the CPS provided in their report is some limited trend data, at the national level, and a local performance table which shows the number of prosecutions, successful and unsuccessful outcomes by police force for 2010-11 – again, there’s no actual trend data and nothing to relate the data that is given back to issues of attrition.
Oh well, there’s nothing there that a little number-crunching can’t fix and so…
& City of London
Okay, so what we have here is the data for convictions for 2009/10 and 2010/11, relative to both the number of reported cases (again using the same two years that was used on the attrition data) and the number of prosecution, and this table is sorted according to the % change in successful convictions against prosecutions between the two years for which we have data.
Again, we have some very mixed figures, particularly when you compare the success rates per prosecution with those per reported case, which take into account cases lost to attrition before charges are preferred, hence, for 2010/11, Lincolnshire might appear to have the best conviction rate in the country but it also has one of the worst attrition rates, so things are quite as good as they might otherwise appear if you were to take the CPS’s report purely at face value. However, there has been some improvement in conviction rates relative to reported cases since they hit rock bottom, in 2005, at aroubd 12-13% – convictions are up, overall, by around 4-5 percentage points in 6 years.
There is also another catch here, which need to be taken into account, and that’s the fact that these figure are based on any conviction for any offence in cases in rape was one of the charges – these are not all actual convictions for rape, as the CPS do explain in passing:
From information available in the MoJs report “Providing anonymity to those accused of rape: An assessment of evidence” details are provided on the outcomes of prosecutions for rape in 2008. Of the rape cases heard at Crown Court in 2008 and matched to an outcome in 2008 or 2009 (i.e. completed trials):
– 58% were convicted of an offence (42% were not guilty);
– of which 33% were convicted of rape;
– a further 14% were convicted of another sexual offence; o 5% were convicted of a violent offence, a further 5% of another indictable offence and 1% of a summary offence.
Now, the CPS might be content to call any kind of conviction in a rape case a success, even a summary conviction which, typically, carries a maximum penalty of 12 month imprison, or less, but I’m fairly sure that rape victims are not quite so inclined to measure success in those terms, so the fact that only a little over 55% of convictions in rape cases are actual rape convictions, based on audited figures, is a pretty important piece of data.
So, what happens to the figures if we do something that the CPS didn’t do in its report, and provide an estimate of the actual number of rape convictions by applying these proportions to the data that they do provide?
This time around we’ll leave the issue of trends to one side and look simple at what the data tells us about the most basic question that a rape victim is likely to want to know at the point that they decide to contact the police – what chance have I got of getting proper justice? – and we’ll do this simply by sorting the table in terms of the comparison between estimated rape convictions and reported rapes for 2010-11:
& City of London
Not quite so impressive, eh?
Overall, it would appear that only around 9-10% of rapes reported in England and Wales result in actual conviction for rape, which is rather better that the 5.5% it was a few years ago but still some way short of what many would consider an acceptable figure, particularly in those areas in which the conviction to reported case ratio is still running below 6%. Likewise, only a third of rape prosecutions actually result in a rape conviction, so even if women do get their assailant into court there is still, on average, only a 1 in 3 chance of getting the kind of justice they’re looking for.
Improving the evidence base
Although the report notes that the MoJ is seeking to improve the statistical evidence relating to rape cases and convictions:
As part of their consultation on “Improvements to the Ministry of Justice statistics”, the MoJ proposed to resolve key conceptual issues which have been raised by users when examining current Ministry of Justice statistical publications, including issues relating to:
– conviction rates; and
– the measurement of the number of crimes where an outcome is reached.
It remains to be seen whether what they eventually come up with will actually improve the situation or simply provide new ways to obfuscate the uncomfortable fact that women who have been raped have only around a 1 in 10/11 chance of obtaining justice.
I’ve said, on a previous occasion, that dealing with rape statistics is, to some extent, rather like dealing with cancer statistics in the sense that there are usually no right answers, just different degrees of wrong. Nevertheless, there is something here to be learned from the manner in which doctors and researchers approach cancer statistics.
Of the many ways of looking at the evidence relating to the question of how well we’re doing when it come to treating cancer, the one that is perhaps most useful is that of looking at survival rates following diagnosis. If you head over to Cancer Research UK’s webiste you’ll quickly find tables for most common cancers which show you how many people, on average, are still alive at set dates after being diagnosed with a particular cancer – typically, you’ll see rates quoted at 1, 2, 5 and in some cases 10 years and, all things considered, this gives a reasonable picture of how well we’re managing to treat different cancers, particular if you do happen to have been diagnosed with cancer.
A smilar, longitudinal, approach to rape statistics, i.e one that shows the numbers of convictions at set periods following the year in which cases were reported would give a more illuminating picture of both the performance of the criminal justice system and any developments and improvements over time and provide a much better picture of the relationship between reported cases and case outcomes. In this, there is also clearly a need for a greater degree of detail as to the reasons why cases are dropped, particularly at the investigation stage, and a much more systematic approach to assessing and recording this information. I find it ridiculous, for example, that there is no published data on the number of rape cases that are actually dropped or discontinued entirely as opposed to those which remain open, even if an investigation is not being actively pursued with any vigour. And while dropping attrition targets may prove beneficial to the CPS, the sugeesting being that targets may have distorted priorities when charging decisions were being made, that’s shouldn’t mean that the CPS should cut back on the provision of detailed outcome data, including data on case attrition, in favour of general handwringing about juries and anecdotes about service ‘quality’. Include a few case studies, by all mean, but not at the expense of cutting back on the empirical evidence.
As I’ve also found out – the hard way – data quality and presentation continues to be a significant issue.
For the current year, the CPS decline to provide any data covering basic complainant demographics, i.e. gender and age, because the data they have is not robust enough to provide reliable figures, and checking back on earlier reports, this is not a new issue – the CPS’s first Violence Against Women report (2007-8) indicated that the gender of complainant was recorded in only 35-40% of cases, and although this has also improved, to around 70%, it remains a major concern that this information is not being collected in a thorough or reliable manner. FFS, give or take the occasional transgendered complaint, who prefers not be constrained by conventional binary views of gender, the question here is ‘Male or Female?” – its not a big ask as its not the Olympic I think we can safely assume that DNA test is not be necessary to arrive at the right answer.
This information matters because there are clear differences in reporting rates depending on both age and gender – when I looked at the broad statistical picture a little over 12 months ago, one of the more striking statistics that emerged was that while the estimated reporting rates for rape was only 3 in 20 for adult women, for girls under 16 it was a little over 4 in 10. Last time out, I didn’t look at the data for rape offences where the victim is male but, perhaps counterintutively given longstanding taboos surrounding this issue, reporting rates for adult male rape complainants (3 in 10) appear to twice as high as they are for adult female complaints (3 in 20), relative to BCS estimates of the overall prevalence of these offences.
The table (below) shows the number and percentage of reported rape case by gender/age for 2010-11:
|Male < 13||671||4.2%|
And, as you can see, adult women accounted for just under 60% of all rape complaints reported to the police in 2010-11 and this leaves with a very big open question as to the extent to which the age and gender of complaints may, or may not, impact on everything from pre-charge attrition rates through to conviction rates at trial, particularly in light of the fact that just over 18% of rape allegations in 2010-11 children under 13, where , since 2003, there has been no consent defence is law.
If, as the CPS suggest, rape myths and stereotypes lies behind many acquittals, does this apply equally to case where the complaint is male, or under 16, or even both?
Who knows? We can;t even make an informed guess at the answer as the CPS don’t publish the data we need to inform our thinking on such issues, in fact they don’t even seem to be able to reliably collate the information necessary to generate that data.
There’s another reason that this matters, and to understand that we need to look at influence of the media on the statistics for reported rape cases.
Media Influence on Rape Statistics.
In May 2006, The Observer newspaper ran a focus article on violent crime under the headline ‘Violent Crime: The Shocking Truth”:
Violent crime: the shocking truth
It was the study Labour used for a devastating attack on spiralling rates of crime during the Tory Nineties. Now, a decade on from his acclaimed account, David Rose reveals that violence is getting worse and the chances of criminals being caught are lower than ever
David Rose – The Observer, Sunday 28 May 2006
As he launched his attack on a Home Office beset by scandal, the shadow Home Secretary scented political blood. ‘These figures reveal the extent of the crisis overwhelming the criminal justice system,’ he said.’ More crimes are being committed and more people are getting away with it. The vast majority of offenders are getting away with even the most serious offences … We have to ensure more offenders are caught and convicted.’
The speaker wasn’t the Conservative David Davis, laying into Labour’s new incumbent John Reid. It was actually Jack Straw in February 1996, citing statistics drawn from a book that I had just published, In the Name of the Law. They showed that, across a range of the worst violent and sexual offences, recorded crime totals had soared, while the chances of being brought to justice had plummeted. Since the Conservative government’s election in 1979, Straw said, robbers, burglars, rapists and other sex attackers and those responsible for the most brutal physical assaults had become steadily less likely to be convicted.
Davis, the present shadow Home Secretary, could quite easily make the same allegation now. Ten years after Tony Blair famously pledged that Labour in power would be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, an Observer investigation reveals that conviction rates – the percentage of recorded offences that result in a guilty finding in court – have dramatically decreased. Robbers, rapists, other sex offenders and attackers who inflict life-threatening injuries are committing many more crimes, and have become much more likely to get away with them than when Labour was elected in 1997. Of the categories Straw identified, only burglary has fallen. Its conviction rate has increased – by 0.5 per cent.
The Observer’s story quickly found its way into other newspapers, notably the Daily Mail, and of the various statistics included in its analysis of the latest crime statistics, one in particular would go on to receive more attention than the rest over a sustained period of time:
Sex crime presents a still more dismal picture. The recorded figures for rapes against females in 1980, 1997 and 2004-5 were respectively 1,200, 6,281 and 12,867 – an almost elevenfold increase in 25 years. The corresponding conviction totals and percentage rates were 457, or 38 per cent; 576, or 9.2 per cent, and 704, just 5.5 per cent: the chance that the perpetrator of a recorded rape would ever be convicted was one seventh as great in 2005 as it was in 1980.
Lest anyone assume that its was only the right wing press that led the charge here, two months after The Observer’s report, The Guardian got in on the act, in conjunction with ‘Glamour’ magazine:
50,000 rapes each year but only 600 rapists sent to jail
The statistics are shocking – and getting worse. The truth is that sexual assault in Britain has become a low-risk crime. In 1985 there was a 24 per cent conviction rate in rape trials. By 2003 it had fallen to 5 per cent. Here, in conjunction with Glamour magazine, we launch a campaign to highlight the frightening facts about rape. In this disturbing account of the way victims are treated, Miranda Sawyer argues that the judicial system has to change to protect women.
Much of the interest in issues surrounding the prosecution of rape stemmed from the publication of a Home Office research report on attrition in rape investigations which, overall, gave a carefully nuanced and thorough overview the complex issues that emerged from this research. Predictably, very little of this nuance found its way into the media beyond the headline figure for convictions and and emphasis on the role of myths and sterotypes in depressing conviction rates. Some commentators even managed to throw in a myth or two of their own:
Because of our mistaken beliefs about who rapists are, it is very difficult to get juries to convict. ‘When jurors are presented with a clean-cut young man in a nice suit, they can’t connect that with their idea of a rapist, so they believe him rather than the victim,’ says writer and campaigner Julie Bindel. ‘And if the victim was drunk, or dressed provocatively, or has had a healthy sex life, the chances of conviction drop even further.’
Based on jury research, Bindel’s correct when it comes to alcohol, overstating the position on dressing provocatively and having a healthy sex life – the extent to which these do, and don’t, influence juries depends on context and well as juror attitudes, i.e. does any evidence relating to these characteristic suggest promiscuity, or not, so its not as clear cut as Bindel suggests. As for the ‘clean cut guy in the nice suit arguemnt’, defendant characteristics are a secondary influence, i.e. the jury has to have doubts about the veracity of complaint before they get around to asking themselves whether or not the bloke in dock ‘looks like a rapist’ – the real problem with ‘nice guy’ rapists is that they’re much less likely to face prosecution, due to stereotypical beliefs held by police and prosecutors and, often, their victims; the same stereotypical beliefs, in fact, that La Bindel was spouting in this article.
So, what impact, if any, did this have on the statistics relating to rape offences?
We’re looking here at the long term trend in reported rapes from 1990 to 2010/11 and the key things to note are:
1. A sharp rise in recorded rape offences where the complainant is female between 2001/2 and 2003/4 – this coincides with changes in the regulations covering police recording of reported crime, removing officer discretion when it came to recording reported offences, i.e. the figures prior to 2001 are lower because the police could choose not to included reported offences that had been ‘no crimed’ on investigation.
2. A sharp fall in the blue line, which is for ‘rape of female’ after 2003/4 – again this due to change in reporting under which rape offences were split according the age of the complainant, hence the correspendingly sharp rises in the red and green lines, which are, respectively, rape of adult female and rape of female aged 13-15.
3. A marked fall is rape cases for adult females and females aged 13-15, starting in 2006-7 and bottoming out in 2007/8, at which point the annual number rapes reported to the police by females age 13 and over had fallen by almost 16% in two years.
What important to note about this fall in recorded rapes is that it only has a significant impact on the data for female complainants aged 13 and above, as should become clear when we look at just the figures from 2003-4 onwards:
So what we have here is a steadily rising trend in reported rape case stehcing all the way back to 1990 which undergoes a sudden reversal in 2005-6, the same year that the media was – at least for a time – awash with ‘shock’ reports about low conviction rates for rape, and that trend continued downwards for two year until, in 2007-8, the government launched a public consultation on proposals to improve conviction rate for rape, at which the press – beginning with The Times – began to as question about what, exactly, this 5.5% ‘conviction rate’ actually meant and, as important, just how accurately it reflected what was actually going with the criminal justice system, particularlywhen it came to actual prosecutions on convictions at trial.
By 2010, and the publication of the Stern Review, the media completed it U-turn, at which point the statistic that, only five years earlier, had been source of national shame, became nothing much more than another stick to beat Harriet Harman with:
Persistent claims that only six per cent of rapes end in conviction was seen as a useful “campaigning tool ” by some but was “extremely unhelpful”, warned Baroness Stern, the cross-bench peer who carried out a six month review in to tackling rape.
She said it has dominated the debate “without explanation, analysis and context” to the “detriment of public understanding” over the rape issues.
She said the figure, which compares the number of convictions against total reports to the police, is based on calculations not used for any other offence.
Once a rape case reaches the courts, almost 60 per cent of defendants are convicted – a rate higher than some other violent attacks
The Government has constantly used the six per cent figure to argue rape has appalling prosecution rates and more action is needed.
Miss Harman referred to it when she launched the Stern Review in September.
The Equalities Minister has been the driving force behind the rape review and was at the centre of an alleged Cabinet rift last August amid claims she wanted to announce it then while standing in for Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister.
But Lady Stern today demanded the figure no longer be used.
So its all Harriet Harman’s fault, then?
Cameron plan to tackle rape conviction rate
By Robert Winnett, Deputy Political Editor – 12:01AM GMT 12 Nov 2007
England and Wales have the lowest rape conviction rates of any of the leading European countries, David Cameron will disclose as he outlines a series of proposals to tighten the laws on sex crimes.
A study commissioned by the Conservatives found that just 5.7 per cent of reported cases result in successful convictions.
In fact, if anything is clear in all this its that there is a need for the MoJ to make a commitment to some long-term and comprehensive research in this area – preferably an indepedently designed and conducted prospective longitudinal study by reputable academics of a minimum of five years duration – and preferably 10-15 years – looking in detail at the entire process from start to finish and taking in all aspects of the criminal justice system’s contact with rape complainants/victims.
Now, if all we actually do draw a couple of straight lines on our graph from 2004-5 to 2010-11 and use that to estimate the total shortfall in reported rape cases that can attributed to the extensive promotion of the sub 6% ‘conviction rate’ for rape cases without – as Baroness Stern observed – “explanation, analysis and context” and to the “detriment of public understanding”, then we’re looking at a shortfall over four years of just over 5,000 reported cases – and however unsatisfactory conviction rates may be, statistical probablity suggests that those 5,000 missing case would have yielded somewhere between 300 and 400 actual rape convictions plus another 150-200 convictions for other offences.
Way to go guys – because all the information necessary to provide a propely nuanced and accurate assessment of conviction and attrition rates in rape cases was there back in 2006, if only anyone could be bothered to look at the actual data and read the research rather than chasing cheap headlines.
The Telegraph’s article from 2010 ends with some rather illuminating comments:
The Government last night appeared to have already taken heed of Lady Stern’s warning on figures.
In her response, Vera Baird, the Solicitor General, made no mention of six per cent, adding instead: “Rapists must know that they won’t get away with it anymore, whatever the circumstances, even if the woman is someone they know, even if she is drunk.
“Things have changed, and they now stand a more than one in two chance of being convicted. The reality is that 58 per cent of rape cases which reach court result in a conviction for rape or another offence.
“We want all victims to feel confident that when they come forward and report rapes it will be taken seriously and they will be treated with dignity and respect.”
Chris Graying, the shadow Home Secretary, said: “The one thing none of us in politics must do is to talk about this issue in a way that stops genuine victims feeling unable to come foward and lodge a complaint.”
Better late than never, I suppose, but then…
But Lisa Longstaff, a spokeswoman for Women Against Rape, said the report was a whitewash.
“The reason that six per cent figure is there is because we have fought for it. We want to know how few reported rapes get to conviction,” she said.
She said it reflected the failure of the justice system.
Well yes, but at the same its always worth remembering that sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.
The more I look at that data relating to rape the more apparent it becomes that there is an urgent need for the MoJ to make a commitment to some long-term and comprehensive research in this area – preferably an indepedently designed and conducted prospective longitudinal study by reputable academics of a minimum of five years duration – and preferably 10-15 years – looking in detail at the entire process from start to finish and taking in all aspects of the criminal justice system’s contact with rape complainants/victims.