Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

How many sexual offence cases go to trial?

The annual crime stats present us with figures of how many people reported their crimes in the previous year.

These can be incredibly hard to comprehend. It’s hard for me to imagine what 100 people look like, never mind thousands of people. So trying to imagine the 64 514 people who reported a sexual offence between April 2011 and March 2012 is almost impossible.

What makes this more incomprehensible is the daily news we get of women being abused, raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed and essentially bearing the brunt of a failing ability of the state to protect its citizens from violence, and a crisis of both the criminal justice system to convict and incarcerate offenders, and a crisis of South African masculinity that enacts violence on women and children every single minute.

Breaking down the numbers — what is 64 514?

Let’s try to break that figure down into something more understandable then shall we.

— 64 514 divided by 365 days a year = 176.75 sexual offences reported a day.
— 176.75 sexual offences reported per day = 7.36 reported an hour.

So essentially what we’re seeing is that a sexual offence is reported about every eight minutes. So dividing it in terms of time makes it a little more comprehensible. Every eight minutes (how long have you been reading this) a survivor of a sexual offence reports a sexual offence. Be clear, this doesn’t mean that every 8 minutes someone is a victim of a sexual offence — because many people don’t report sexual offences, and if they do, it’s rarely within 60 seconds of the event.

Does this help us understand how many people that is? For me, it makes it even harder to understand the scale of this type of criminal offence.

So what about this? Imagine if you ran 1km per person who reported a sexual offence. You’d run 64 514km. How far is that? Well, it’s 1.5 times the circumference of the earth which is 40 075.017 km (equatorial). If you ran 5km a day, it would take about 12 902 days to complete your task. That’s 35 years of your life.

Will those 64 514 be more likely to get some form of justice than those who chose not to report?

Of course, it’s only those that report a rape that have the opportunity to go to trial. Sexual offences are considered crimes against the state, and thus the perpetrator is prosecuted by the state. It’s not a case of survivor vs perpetrator, but state vs perpetrator. The survivor becomes a witness in their own case.

How many of those sexual offences will go to trial? In a study on rape attrition, Dee Smythe and Lillian Artz show that most cases don’t make it past the police station because:

“The second stage of the process — including reporting, forensic medical examinations, statement taking, investigations/evidence gathering and arrest of accused persons — is also a key attrition point in our criminal justice system. The ability to find the accused, and in some cases the complainant, has a great impact on the ability of the criminal justice system to assist rape complainants. Without the accused the case cannot proceed. Other aspects of the investigation, including the ability of investigating officers to collect appropriate and relevant evidence for the prosecution of rape cases, is also questionable in the majority of cases.”

They provide an even scarier analysis of what this actually means in practice on page 168 of the article:

“The findings of a shocking 1.998 CIETafrica study illustrate how attrition works: it was shown that for every 394 women raped in the Southern Johannesburg Metropole, 272 (69%) reported the attack to the police; of these only .7 (6%) became ‘rape cases’; one of the .7 was ‘lost’ in a manner considered fraudulent, five were referred to court for prosecution and one resulted in a conviction.”

The scary thing is that 45% of sexual offence cases that went to trial achieved a conviction in the 2010/2011 period, a total of 4 915 cases (see page 10 of that report). In the same year, 66 196 new offences were reported.

An existing backlog of 17 242 cases exists at a regional and high court level. The minister of community safety stated that “convictions are a key deterrent” to perpetration of a crime. It doesn’t seem that a 45% chance of getting a conviction IF you ever go to trial is something that would scare someone off.

What does this mean?

It means the criminal justice system is not working for the survivors of sexual offences. The poor decisions at police level mean most cases don’t get to court. The low conviction rates in court mean that most who undergo the harrowing process of seeing their perpetrator in court do not achieve a conviction, and their perpetrator goes free.

Do I think you should report a sexual offence against you? Is it worth it?

Some days I think, why not spend all that time and energy on healing yourself. On taking yourself for counselling and healthcare. On rebuilding your ability to live as a whole healed person. I think f**k the (in)justice system and its failure to take the rights of survivors seriously. I think f**k the magistrates who have no understanding of sentencing that is appropriate to a crime and so have their sentences repealed or reduced at higher courts, providing survivors with a false sense of security in their convictions. I think f**k the section of the Act that allows for “serious and compelling” evidence that sentences should be reduced, and all the bullshit reasons that have been given to reduce them. I think f**k all of that. Stay home, get better, live your life, don’t let the incident define you.

Other days, I think that if you don’t it’s likely the perpetrator will perpetrate again. He cannot fear a conviction if you don’t report. Prepare yourself for a long battle, but know that there are people, organisations and institutions that believe you and will support you.

I don’t know. I guess it’s up to you. The bottom line is that the scale of this problem is more terrifying than we’re acknowledging.

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