How Can The Legal System Help Survivors Of Sexual Assault?
Surviving a sexual assault is a traumatic experience which stays with victims for the rest of their lives. However, with the right support system, survivors can move on past their trauma and live fulfilling lives. In order to do so, it’s important that they have allies who are willing to stand behind them and help them find justice.
Many survivors hesitate to take legal action, for a variety of reasons. Some are afraid that doing so will simply prolong a traumatic experience, while others worry that no one will believe them, that they’ll be victim-blamed, or that the court system will fail them in other ways. But with the right legal guidance, survivors can make sure their assaulters are brought to justice and potentially help prevent others from becoming future victims of the same offender.
The Criminal Justice System & Sexual Assault
In an ideal world, sexual predators would always be held criminally accountable for their heinous crimes. Most victims who decide to take legal action turn the criminal justice system first. However, the way the system currently handles sexual assault cases leaves much to be desired.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), only 6 out of every 1,000 rapists go to jail or prison for their crimes. Related statistics further highlight the failings of the criminal justice system when it comes to sexual violence:
- 310 of every 1,000 rapes are reported to police
- 57 of every 1,000 rapes lead to an arrest
- 11 of every 1,000 rapes are referred to prosecutors
- 7 of every 1,000 lead to a felony conviction
These statistics clearly indicate a need for reform in how the criminal justice system handles crimes like sexual assault.
Why Is Sexual Violence Underreported?
If you’ve survived a sexual assault and are hesitating to report it, you’re not alone. It’s normal to feel apprehensive about filing a report for all types of reasons. According to RAINN, these are the most common reasons survivors give for not reporting the crime:
- 20% feared retaliation
- 13% believed the police would not help them
- 13% considered it a personal matter
- 8% reported to another type of official (not police)
- 8% thought it was not important enough to report
- 7% did not want to get the perpetrator in trouble
- 2% thought the police would be unable to help
- 30% gave another reason or no reason
How Can Civil Lawsuits Help Survivors?
While the criminal justice system fails far too many survivors, there are other avenues towards justice. The civil court system also allows survivors to hold their assaulters accountable, along with organizations and individuals who may have enabled the crime to occur.
Civil sexual assault lawsuits function differently than criminal trials. In a criminal trial, a jury must find the suspect guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This can create problems when there is a lack of physical evidence, which is often the case unless the crime is reported immediately after it occurs. But civil cases only require “a preponderance of evidence” as the burden of proof – meaning it’s only necessary to prove that the defendant is more likely than not guilty.
Taking legal action through the civil court system can help survivors in several ways:
- Provide an alternate route to justice when the criminal justice system fails to make an arrest or conviction.
- Hold organizations and others accountable for enabling the perpetrator (such as a church covering up an official’s sexual abuse).
- Provide financial compensation for expenses related to the assault or abuse, such as therapy costs, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc.
- Prevent future victims from being assaulted by the same individual or under the watch of the same organization.
If you’ve survived a sexual assault and want to take legal action, an experienced sexual assault lawyer can help you better understand your legal options and help guide you through the process as you seek justice.
Brian Kent is a sexual assault attorney and partner at Laffey Bucci Kent LLP. He graduated with a law degree from Philadelphia’s Temple University, and served as a criminal prosecutor in the Sex Crimes Unit of Montgomery County’s District Attorney’s Office.