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  • Sun, 6, May, 2018 - 5:00:AM

Are jury trials appropriate for sex crimes?

The justice system is the skeleton of our society. Without it, everything would fall apart. When it’s broken, it causes pain, and requires attention and intervention. And often those breakages can’t be seen by the naked eye. They require in-depth investigation so that an appropriate remedy can be administered.

I suspect that our justice system may be suffering from a few hidden fractures. Somewhere along the line, something has gone wrong. Particularly when it comes to crimes of sexual assault. 

It’s not news that victims of sex crimes very rarely see justice served against their rapists. The statistics are well known. An estimated 9 per cent of sexual assaults are reported. Just 31 per cent of reported sexual assaults get to the prosecution stage. And only 13 per cent of sexual assault prosecutions result in a conviction.

The figures are pretty sobering. And a further report this week by the New Zealand Herald’s Kirsty Johnson adds another scary number to the mix. While almost 14,000 reported aggravated sexual assaults have gone ‘unsolved’ since 1994, due to a quirk of the classification system and historic police reluctance to categorise sexual assault as such, the true number of reported sexual assaults that have gone unsolved is likely to be much higher than official records reflect.

If that weren’t bad enough, even when sexual assault is coded correctly (and police have thankfully shifted away from classifying reported sexual assaults as ‘no crime’ in recent years), the vast majority of them go unsolved. In 2016, 80 per cent of reported aggravated sexual assaults went unsolved. 

Another key part of the problem is the court process. Currently, in New Zealand, sexual assault crimes are tried in jury trials. All it takes is for two jurors out of 12 to disagree and the trial will be declared a mistrial (a ‘hung jury’), meaning the victim will have to go through the trial process all over again or the alleged perpetrator may walk free. 

In practice, that could mean that two jurors could be affected by rape myths (for example, they may believe that someone wearing a short skirt or a low-cut top might be ‘asking for it’, or they may believe that since someone engaged in one form of sexual behaviour (for example, kissing) with the accused, that indicated consent to another form of sexual behaviour (for example, penetrative sex)) and the whole trial would be voided.

In my opinion, the question of whether jury trials are appropriate for cases of sexual assault is one that needs to be posed and discussed in depth. I personally favour instead implementing a system in which a panel of three judges with specialist training would try sexual assault cases. The dynamics in the courtroom would be markedly different if it were judges and not a jury that decided upon cases of sexual violence.

Regardless of personal opinions about the best way to ensure that justice is done, surely we can agree that something has to change. When 80 per cent of reported sexual assault cases are going unsolved, and only 13 per cent of sexual assault prosecutions result in a conviction, it’s hardly surprising that victims are reluctant to come forward. 

It’s time for us to ask some hard questions about our justice system. 

If you need support, the following services can help:

- National Network Ending Sexual Violence Together (a group of sexual violence support service providers around the country) – click here.

- HELP - Support for Auckland survivors of sexual abuse 09 623 1700 (24 hour confidential phone line) or email HELP at info@helpauckland.org.nz.

- Specialist support services are available nationwide on 0800 88 33 00.

Most sexual assault agencies are listed in the Personal Emergencies section of the White Pages.

If you are in danger, call 111 and ask for the police.

TAGGED IN

  • Sexual Assault /
  • Courts /
  • Justice /
  • justice system /
  • Police /
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