Why we should not sugar-coat rape conviction rates

Consciously deciding to use more favourable statistics, as Baroness Stern suggests, would mask the p

Baroness Stern's long-awaited review of the way rape cases are handled in England and Wales was published today. It criticises an excessive focus on "misleading" conviction rates, and recommends that victim support should be as much a priority as increasing convictions.

Stern said that what victims "felt was really important was not in the end if they could get a conviction. What they said was, 'We still feel we want to be believed.' "

It is certainly true that a victim should not be abandoned by the authorities because police feel that their case is unlikely to lead to a conviction.

However, Stern's comments about conviction rates and -- particularly -- the statistics, could be rather dangerous. This is shown by the Daily Mail's ranting, skewed coverage of the story today. It opens with this:

Harriet Harman was ordered to stop misleading the public about rape by an official inquiry report yesterday.

The Equalities Minister was accused of pumping out unreliable figures about the low number of rapists brought to justice, thus discouraging victims from reporting attacks.

The review by Baroness Stern appeared to put an end to years of claims by ministers that laws and criminal procedures for dealing with rape need radical reform because only 6 per cent of complaints end in a conviction.

While this implies that the real story is Harriet Harman spearheading a plot to mislead the public, it boils down to a dispute about which statistics should be used. The oft-cited figure (supposedly "misleading"), is that just 6 per cent of reported rape cases end with a conviction for rape.

Stern suggests that instead, we should look at the number of reported cases that end in a conviction not just for rape, but for other related crimes, which is 14 per cent. She adds that 58 per cent of those cases that get to court result in a conviction.

 

"Foul play" favours rapists

It is a complex matter. On the one hand, Stern's argument, that quoting the shockingly low 6 per cent conviction rate figure will deter people from reporting the crime, contains an element of sense. On the other hand, is it not more "misleading" to give victims an inaccurate picture of what they will be up against?

Yes, a conviction for a related crime is something, but it is not what many women (or men) are looking for. Moreover, the 58 per cent figure relates only to the small number of cases that actually make it to court.

"What she's proposing is to cover up what's happening in the criminal justice system just at the time when women are finally getting the truth out," Ruth Hall of Women Against Rape told the Guardian. I'm inclined to agree.

The unpleasant language of the Daily Mail article suggests that this report has finally laid to rest the Big Rape Conspiracy, proving once and for all that we don't need to interrogate and improve the way in which the justice system deals with rape.

Just reread that last sentence, which says that the review has "put an end to years of claims by ministers that laws and criminal procedures for dealing with rape need radical reform". This sense of foul play is enforced by a clipping that accompanies the online version of the piece, criticising Harman's "single-minded pursuit of an equality agenda", as though we can safely discredit the argument that there are serious problems with our attitudes to rape.

It has been slow, but there have been improvements in the way that rape is handled. The 6 per cent figure is shocking, but it is shocking because it is true. To sugar-coat it at this juncture would be to risk taking many steps backward.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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