Thinking About Jailing the Victim? Here’s Why Not.

20 Apr

This is a post I have been thinking about writing for about a week now.  The idea was to give my rage a little time to dissolve.  As any friends or frequent readers might have already guess, this was an exercise in futility.  On April 15th, the New York Times (belatedly) published an article about a 17-year-old rape victim who was detained in Sacramento County, California (either in violation of, or due to the existence of, Marsy’s Law) for failing to appear at the court case against the man who was accused of raping her.  She was, ultimately, held in juvenile detention for 25 days for failing to appear twice.  The judge on the case deemed that rather than continuing to hold her until her scheduled appearance on April 23rd (almost a full month after she was first placed in custody on March 27th) she would be tracked using GPS monitoring.  Apparently her appearance is necessary because her attacker has been deemed a threat to public safety.

I really don’t even know where to start with this one.  According to the Times article, prosecutors in the case believe this girl is the missing link to putting away her attacker, a man who has a long criminal record including one prior rape.  Fair enough.  But ultimately that decision, whether to go through the strains of a trial, should be in the hands of the victim and not the criminal justice system.  As my friend Carrie said in a recent conversation, it should not be about justice, it should be about her justice.  Having been the victim of assault myself, as many women have been and, unfortunately, will be, I can understand her apprehension about coming forward.  I never told anyone what happened because I was afraid it was my fault.  I felt embarrassed and ashamed.  I, also, was 17.  Now, 11 years later, looking back on it I wish I had come forward and said something.  Who knows what this person did later.  Who knows whether his actions escalated.  Who knows whether by my coming forward I could have helped save someone else from experiencing the same thing I did.  The thing is that when I was 17 I wasn’t the same person I am now, at 28.  I was more concerned with healing myself, moving forward with my life, my freshman year at college, than I was with holding him (offiicially) responsible for his actions.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I even fully recognized, or named, the assault for a long time after it occurred.  Sure, the thought of seeing that person again, with whom I had a lot of friends in common, made me really uneasy but I don’t think I truly knew why that was.  I blocked it out and it took a number of years before I had the courage to admit to myself what had happened.  And again, I felt a sense of shame.  I was a strong woman, an independent woman, I shouldn’t have allowed this to happen.  But the thing is, it had nothing to do with how strong or independent I was, and I certainly didn’t let it happen (or “ask for it” which seems the common vernacular).  It had nothing to do with me as a person at all, really.  It had to do with his power and my, simply by being born a woman, lack thereof. It had to do with the society in which he and I were both raised.  My point here is that I understand the desire the prosecutors have to put this man behind bars.  He is a reprehensible human being.  But putting the responsibility for the safety of an entire community, and the possible punishment of a career criminal, on the shoulders of a young woman who likely feels responsible for her own assault is just as reprehensible.  She needs to heal, in her time and in her way, she needs support, she needs to either speak out against him or not, she needs to do what she needs.  And, really, she is the only one who knows what that is.  But since they have jailed her, since that has happened, here are some reasons why I find it incredibly problematic.

1.  According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) 54% of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported.  That’s a lot.  They even came up with this incredibly useful, and incredibly depressing, bar graph that pictorializes rape conviction rates.

Convictions

Source:  RAINN

  1. Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey: 2006-2010
  2. FBI, Uniform Crime Reports: 2006-2010
  3. National Center for Policy Analysis, Crime and Punishment in America, 1999
  4. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: average of 2002-2006

If one were to do a risk-reward analysis of the results of coming forward after a rape or assault, one would likely conclude that reliving a traumatic event in front of a group of strangers to most likely not succeed in putting someone behind bars is not really worth it.  It partially explains why so many rapes and assaults go unreported and also might explain why this specific victim decided against reporting to her court appearance the first two times she was required to do so.

2.  It is not, I repeat not, the responsibility of this 17-year-old girl, or any other rape or assault victim, to protect the community from his/her attacker.  Sure, it would be great if she felt compelled to do so and even better if it worked in her favor.  Clearly this man is a monster and shouldn’t be free, but to force a victim to face her attacker against her will is inhuman.  The prosecutors in this case can not know, even if they themselves have been assaulted in their lifetime, what this girl’s life has been like, how she might feel about her attack, the fear she might have of facing her attacker, the trust or distrust she might have towards law enforcement and the justice system.  No one but her knows how she is feeling and no one but her can make the decision as to how she would like to go forward.

3.  Back to the rape report statistics, why do people not have the ability to have a big picture understanding of things?  I get it, the prosecutors want to put this man in jail.  But how about the ways in which this story is going to impact other victims of rape and assault?  Do they really think that by putting this girl behind bars they are instilling any sort of trust in law enforcement and the justice system’s ability to handle cases such as this?  Do they really think that other victims are going to feel safe reporting their own attacks when the possibility they will be jailed for being afraid to appear in court is in the back of their minds?

4.  If you have ever followed a rape or sexual assault case that has garnered national, or international attention, then you will know that the woman is rarely portrayed as a hero for standing up to her attacker.  In our justice system, in media coverage, and in our society she is a slut until proven otherwise.  The victim-blaming runs rampant.  Press coverage, and casual conversation, is rife with questions and assumptions.  What was she wearing?  What was she doing out at that time of night in that area of town?  Where was her mother?  Had she ever lied on any document on public record because if she had, if she was capable of lying then, what’s to make us think she isn’t lying now?  How many sexual partners had she had previously?  Was she promiscuous, or perceived as being promiscuous, in her life?  How much had she had to drink?  You get the idea.  If the victim is not perceived as relatable and trust-worthy then the assault never happened.  She is forced to defend her past, her actions, and her personality as if she is the one on trial.  And then, as if that wasn’t enough, she has to look at examples like Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in which he is respected and she is still, 17 years later, running away from the image of a semen-stained dress.  She is defined by her assault and he by his accomplishments.  With events like these to look to, who can blame a victim for not wanting to put herself through it?

Maybe it seems as if I have taken my analysis of this specific incident a little too far.  The point of the matter is that no unique rape or assault exists in a vacuum separate from all the rapes and assaults, and official responses to them, that came before.  Every single day women are in danger of becoming victims and, by jailing this young woman, Sacramento County has just taken, on behalf of the entire criminal justice system, a step backwards in terms of its openness to female victims of sexual violence.  We are further silenced, unprotected, disempowered, and victimized because of actions such as this.  And now this young girl has yet another trauma to overcome, the trauma of her own incarceration.

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