Friday, October 9, 2009

FBI - Rape reports at lowest level in 20 years

Reported rapes have fallen to the lowest level in 20 years as DNA evidence helps send more rapists to prison and victims are more willing to work with police and prosecutors, victims advocates and crime researchers say.

The FBI estimates 89,000 women reported being raped in 2008 — 29 women for every 100,000 people. That's down from a high of 109,062 reported rapes in 1992 — 43 women for every 100,000 people. Data for 2009 are not yet available.

"We have seen reform in how police work with victims, gather evidence and investigate rape; we've seen increased awareness of the crime, and we've seen better prosecution," says Michael Males, senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice in San Francisco. "Hospitals now have rape kits that they didn't have 40 years ago" which make it easier to collect an attacker's DNA and other evidence of a crime.

Rape prosecutions have improved dramatically over the past two decades because of advances in DNA testing to pinpoint a rapist rather than forcing prosecutors to rely solely on a victim's identification of her attacker, says Kim Gandy, past president of the National Organization for Women and a former prosecutor.

Gandy recalls prosecutors' reluctance in the 1970s and early 1980s to take rape cases to trial because "no district attorney wants to have a low conviction rate on rape."

In 1994, the federal Violence Against Women Act provided $1.6 billion to bolster rape prosecutions.

"The level of interest and professionalism dealing with sexual assault cases increased as a result," says Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a victims' advocacy group. Yearly statistics on rape prosecutions are not available, Berkowitz says, but prosecutors have told him they have learned to pursue such cases.

Use of DNA evidence has expanded gradually over the past 15 years and can put a rapist in prison the first time he's caught, preventing him from harming other women, Berkowitz says. Many rapists are repeat offenders.

Attitudes about rape also have shifted since high schools and colleges adopted public awareness campaigns in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Berkowitz says.

"There is a much greater understanding that this is a crime," he says. Surveys by his group show women are more willing to report rape now than two decades ago because they expect police will believe them.

"You don't see the nightmarish trials of the 1960s where a woman's reputation would be brought into question and people would conclude she deserved it," Males says.

Criminologists say an overall decline in violent crime in the last decade doesn't fully explain the decreases in rape.

Some factors that pushed crime down, such as the decline in crack cocaine markets, are unlikely to affect rape, says Richard Rosenfeld, criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Catching more violent criminals with better policing probably does contribute to the decline, he says.

Berkowitz says he is encouraged by the trends, but "we've still got a long way to go. We need to encourage more victims to report to police and guarantee that when they do report, the case is properly investigated."

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