SA Cases: Examining Police, Prosecution

Examining Connections Between the Police and the Prosecution in Sexual Assault Case Processing


Thursday, October 1, 2015 - 12:30pm
Cheever House, Wellesley Centers for Women

Examining Connections Between the Police and the Prosecution in Sexual Assault Case Processing: Does the Use of Exceptional Clearance Facilitate a Downstream Orientation?

Presenters: April Pattavina, P.h.D. and Linda M. Williams, Ph.D.

After several decades of research on how the criminal justice system handles reports of sexual assault, the attrition of cases at the police and prosecutor stages continues to draw the attention of policymakers, victim advocates, and academics. Such attrition has implications for thousands of victims and their alleged offenders each year. Current estimates show that significant rates of attrition persist and vary across jurisdictions. Recent work reveals a pattern of exceptional clearances being used to close sexual assault cases reported to the police and that prosecutors are weighing in at the arrest stage. Broadening this analysis the researchers use incident data from a multitude of jurisdictions that report to the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) in combination with data from other law enforcement sources to investigate how legal and extra-legal incident factors as well as agency factors differentiate the decision to clear cases by exceptional means from clearance by arrest. The researchers will present results of their analysis and discuss how these findings suggest a downstream orientation in case processing.

Very few of the sexual assaults reported to police result in prosecution or conviction, with many cases “dropping out” along the way. Despite decades of progress and increased attention to the crimes of rape and sexual assault, this high rate of “dropping out”, or attrition, persists across jurisdictions and continues to draw the attention of policymakers, victim advocates, and academics.

Currently, Pattavina and Williams are involved in a multi-site federally funded study of factors that influence the decision-making of criminal justice professionals in cases of sexual assault. In this seminar, they will discuss their recent research findings that reveal a pattern of “exceptional clearances”, rather than arrest, being used as a reason for closing sexual assault cases reported to the police. When a case is closed by exceptional clearance, some outside factor has prevented law enforcement agencies from moving forward with arrest and prosecution even after the offender has been identified. This pattern shows that prosecutors are weighing in at the arrest stage and influencing the use of exceptional clearance to close cases by declining to prosecute.

Pattavina and Williams will present the results of their analysis and discuss how these findings suggest a tendency among criminal justice professionals to assume what a case outcome might be before a thorough investigation is complete. This tendency, known as downstream orientation, may cause a police officer to predetermine whether or not a prosecutor might take a particular sexual assault case to trial or cause a prosecutor to predict how the victim might be evaluated by a judge and jury, potentially affecting the way the case is processed and contributing to low rates of prosecution.

Lunchtime seminars are free and open to the public. Bring your lunch; coffee and tea will be served.

Wellesley Centers for Women – Cheever House

828 Washington Street (Route 16), Wellesley, MA

781.283.2500