What Leads To Rapists And Abusers Getting Lenient Sentences?

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Many times, rapists and abusers are given lenient sentences. The reasons for such light punishment are many, and all point towards the role of the victim while debunking the responsibility of the offender. Such leniency has a direct impact on victims and their families, and that impact has an effect which is often traumatic.

National Statistics: Primary Discrepancies In Sentencing

Statistics show that a vast majority of rapists and abusers will be allowed to walk free. A national database reported that out of 1,000 rape and sexual assault cases, 994 assailants are allowed to reside in the community. This leaves only a microscopic amount to sit in jails and prisons, while the rest are either given probation or put on work release. Other offenders are only placed under house arrest with the added incentive of community service and mandatory outpatient therapy. The same holds true for those who commit assault and battery, with only a staggering 33 cases that are given maximum jail and prison sentences out of 1,000 cases.

The Social and Psychological Impact on Victims

Those who have been victimized as the result of physical abuse and sexual assault are all too familiar with the aftermath of such an event. The trauma that follows, along with a sense of losing control over one's own body is only the beginning of the emotional effects which accompany such a nightmare. But the trauma is made worse when the legal system belittles the enormity of these violent crimes by not putting offenders behind bars.

Lenient sentencing for offenders in these areas has a major impact on the victims as well as the rest of the community. The social position has shifted from sympathy for the victim to sympathy for the one committing the act, as judges often worry that harsh sentencing may not be the most appropriate measure of punishment, especially in cases of high-profile offenders. A feeling of being discounted emerges as the victim ponders the question of why he/she has not been heard. A sense of not having a voice ensues as the struggle continues. Those who have survived the assault are left with feelings of extreme guilt and depression as society blames them unfairly for what happened. Friends and family may ask the person why they "chose" to return to an abuser, may question them as to what they were wearing when the assault occurred, and what they may have done to "provoke" that person. This is known as derogation of the victim, a psychological phenomenon where the blame is shifted away from the perpetrator and placed onto the victim.

Golden Boy Let Off Easy

One rape case that made headlines was one that involved a freshman, Brock Turner, who raped a young woman at a frat party on campus. The article painted a picture of the quintessential "golden boy," the one who was a major champion on the college swimming team and was being considered for the Olympics. He was dealing with the possibility of up to 14 years in prison, but the judge only gave him six months in jail plus probation due to fears of Turner's reputation being marred. This type of social leniency for people like Turner is not an uncommon occurrence, as both the public and the media shower so much sympathy on those who have an athletic scholarship that leads to a potentially good future. Meanwhile, the victim, who remains unidentified, was led through a series of humiliating questions which asked what she was doing, why she went to the party, and how much she had to drink.

Sadly, such happenings are not at all uncommon, as people like Turner are granted clemency by virtue of coming from a privileged upbringing. Yet in the above case, the woman was allowed to issue a victim impact statement that detailed the feeling which resulted from the attack. She describes a loss of identity as the press referred to her as an "unconscious intoxicated woman." Such jargon paints a picture of someone who has been disposed of, tossed away through no fault of her own. This act of denying the identity of the victim only perpetuates the belief that she has no right to self, as her autonomy has been viciously stripped from her.

Personal autonomy over one's own body involves a feeling of ownership over self. But this ownership over one's own body cannot exist without the proper social support to back it up. When these conditions fail to support it, as the above example illustrates, a feeling of a loss of control results. In this sense, the individual becomes more vulnerable to future attacks such as this. Because these crimes typically go with light punishment, victims often fear retaliation as rapists and abusers are allowed to go free, which is one prime example of this loss of ownership. This, in turn, discourages reporting of the crime to police.

Why Does Sexual Abuse Go Unreported?

Because many victims are coerced into feeling ashamed, most sexual abuse goes unreported. Those who do report it received very little to no support and risk being ostracized by family, friends, and communities. Shame, fear and intimidation, and derogation of the victim are three primary reasons that sexual abuse goes unreported.

However, the main reasons that perpetrators of sexual assault get leniency is not just that the cases go unreported. It is the overall failure of the criminal justice system in our country. Below are a list of staggering facts as to why this happens:

  • There is an institutionalized bias against women. There are common stereotypes regarding assault victims, most of whom tend to be women. One is the classic assumption of women as "teasers," which suggests that they must be doing something to provoke the abuser, often without effort.
  • Derogation of the victim. This goes hand in hand with the overall bias against women. Common questions that defense attorneys ask include the following: What was she doing? What was she wearing? This perpetuates the woman's concept of herself as being someone of little social value due to her gender.
  • Lack of forensic evidence. Due to the horrific nature of the sexual assault experience, victims are often highly leery of going through the physical procedure required by rape kits. This leads to their hesitancy to provide the evidence law enforcement may need to prosecute offenders. In a society where scientific evidence is valued over the victim's story, courts and plaintiffs are in a terrible bind.

Prosecuting Offenders: A Trauma-Informed Approach

Due to the increase in sexual assault cases and the reluctance of victims to consent to rape kits, there is a vast new movement being used to prosecute offenders. Known as the trauma-informed approach, it involves a psychological perspective of reporting. The two primary goals of the initiative are to enhance the commitment of police in their response to those crimes and to support communities in improving their outlook on the victims. Law enforcement is trained professionally in a variety of ways to hear the victim's story. The objectives for law enforcement are as follows:

  • They should be able to describe the impact of the assault on the victim and its effect on trauma, memory, reactions, and behavior of the victim.
  • Law enforcement should be able to understand how their interpretation of the claim affects the courts.
  • Understanding regarding how their decisions can affect the outcome of an investigation.
  • Officers should understand that victim disclosure takes time and patience. Trust needs to be earned.
  • Use strategies to delay their own judgment while the investigation is in progress.
  • Use appropriate means of investigation and methods that focus on the behavior of the offender.
  • Once trust is established, be willing to collect critical evidence by interviewing the victim and collecting physical, psychological, and sensory evidence that is sufficient enough to build a case.
  • Mitigate bias against the victim.
  • Based on evidence analysis, be able to make decisions regarding case classification and other related issues.

Whenever crimes are committed, there is the human need to seek justice. When law enforcement fails, there is the tendency towards outrage and anger, especially among the victims. With sexual abuse, there are so many social and cultural attitudes which impact cases and affect victims on all levels.

Guilt is a major factor that is perpetuated by the cycle of victim derogation, something that adds to an experience that is already so traumatic that it leaves one wondering what they should have done differently. When rapists or abusers get lenient sentences, that is a sign that something is wrong and needs addressing. By practicing an attitude of cultural sensitivity towards women, there is still hope. Having stricter sentencing laws for offenders is just the beginning.

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