It’s Time to Build a Better Community Response to Sexual Assault


Each April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, is a time to highlight efforts that support survivors and the organizations in our communities working to end sexual violence. Over the last year, the #MeToo movement grabbed the country’s attention as survivors illuminated the harsh reality that sexual violence and recovery are common experiences for many people. Survivors work beside us, go to school with us, and possibly look back at us in the mirror. Even with increased awareness galvanized by the #MeToo movement, we still need Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This year we should seize this moment to amplify efforts examining the criminal justice system response to sexual assault and identify ways to improve it.

The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) estimates that more than 320,000 incidents of rape or sexual assault occurred in 2016. That’s 1.2 assaults per 1,000 people age 12 or older, but even those numbers likely do not capture the full scope of sexual violence in the United States. According to NCVS estimates, only 23 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement, the lowest of any crime category on the NCVS. Of the less than 25 percent of rapes and sexual assaults that are reported, prosecution rates vary. In one study, only 10 percent of sexual assault cases reported to police resulted in felony charges. These statistics on sexual assault raise questions about system-level factors that may cause victims to not report or that hamper prosecutions.

The criminal justice system has a responsibility to ensure that victims are supported when they report sexual assault and that perpetrators are held accountable. However, the response to sexual assault can break down at multiple points, so sustainable solutions must be multidisciplinary to enact change across the entire criminal justice process. For the past three years, RTI has been working with investigators, prosecutors, victim advocates, forensic nurses, and forensic laboratories around the country to improve the response to sexual assault. The results of these agencies’ efforts prove that trauma-informed, victim-centered policies create positive outcomes for survivors and criminal cases.

Agencies can take steps right now to ensure that patrol officers and detectives receive training to understand the signs and impact of trauma, and that prosecutors receive training that empowers them to prosecute so-called “he-said/she-said” cases and alcohol-facilitated sexual assault. Communities should dedicate resources to victim services and consider building justice centers for adult sex crimes, akin to child advocacy centers, that could create a shared space for multidisciplinary teams to coordinate investigations and services for victims.

This April, we at RTI are challenging ourselves to work even harder with our criminal justice partners to build a system that serves survivors and prosecutes offenders. How can you challenge your community to dedicate the resources, training, and policies needed to bring survivors the justice they deserve?

Kevin J. Strom, PhD, is an expert in law enforcement responses to community violence, the causes and correlates of interpersonal violence, and interagency coordination in response to terrorism. He is the director of RTI’s Policing Research Program of our Center for Justice, Safety, and Resilience.

Rose Werth is a public health analyst who performs research analysis for the Policing Research Program of our Center for Justice, Safety, and Resilience. Her work involves local criminal justice and service systems, homelessness, and sexual assault reform.