From reporting to trial – how rape cases fall through the cracks
Crime is a systemic problem in South Africa and every year a huge number of cases are reported to the police. In 2017, for example, there were 49 660 sexual offences cases reported to the police in South Africa. But in how many of these cases does the offender actually go to jail? You would think that the number of convictions would be a similarly high number, but what we find is that because of “attrition” the number of criminal convictions is only a small percentage of the cases reported to the police.
Attrition is the ‘filtering process by which cases drop out of the criminal justice system’ (RAPPSA Report). In the South African criminal justice system, attrition of cases looks at the number of rape cases reported to the police in comparison to the number of cases that actually go to trial and result in a conviction. Attrition of rape cases in South Africa is a matter of serious concern in terms of having an effective criminal justice system. The 2017 Report, Rape Justice In South Africa: A Retrospective Study Of The Investigation, Prosecution And Adjudication Of Reported Rape Cases From 2012, (RAPSSA Report) looks at 3 952 rape cases from across South Africa and examines (among other things) the attrition rates of rape cases and the various reasons that attrition occurs as cases progress through the criminal justice system. In the article below we take a closer look at the statistics outlined in the RAPSSA Report and examine some of the reasons why attrition occurs in rape cases.
Points of attrition for rape cases
It is noted in the RAPSSA Report that some attrition of rape cases within the criminal justice system is inevitable. In some cases, for example, there are no clues to the accused’s identity and therefore the case cannot feasibly progress to an arrest. In other cases, they are assessed on their merits and a decision is then taken whether to proceed or not.
Here is a list of the different points at which attrition can occur:
- At the reporting stage, where a police officer may use their discretion not to open a case if they are not convinced of the reliability of the complainant’s statement;
- At the investigation stage, when either the suspect remains unidentified and chances of locating or arresting the suspect are very low, or when the victim is subsequently untraceable or expresses disinterest in pursuing the case;
- At the prosecution stage, when the prosecutors decline to prosecute for different reasons, including that the evidence collected is not strong enough;
- Prior to the start of trial, the prosecutor may withdraw the case due to lack of co-operation from the complainant, the disappearance of perpetrators or other reasons.
- After the trial has started the failure to establish a prima facie case or other reasons leads to the case being discharged by the court.
(Taken from the RAPSSA Report, 2017)
While attrition rates differ at the different stages, most studies show that the highest attrition occurs at the police investigation phase, and most reported cases (81.5% of cases from the RAPSSA Report) never make it to trial.
Statistics on Attrition in rape cases
As seen in the graph below, here are the RAPSSA Report key findings on attrition in the criminal justice system:
- 3 952 cases were included in the study and of these;
- 2 283 (57%) of cases resulted in an arrest being made.
- 2 579 (65%) cases were referred for prosecution.
- 1 362 cases (34.4%) were accepted by prosecutors and these were enrolled for trial.
- Trials started in 731 (18.5%) cases.
- 340 (8.6%) cases were finalised, with a verdict of guilty of a sexual offence.
As you can see there is a massive ‘drop-off’ rate between when a case is reported to when a case is finalised. Less than 20% of cases reported go to trial and only 8,6% of cases result in a conviction. This leads to a lack of trust in the criminal justice system as it appears that there is a very small chance that justice will be achieved if you report your rape to the police.
From these statistics it was noted in the RAPSSA Report that;
“The criminal justice system has an important role to play if it can work optimally and ensure that justice is a frequent outcome after rape for victims. At present this is not the case. The system is highly inefficient and requires a major overhaul. There needs to be more thorough and timeous case investigation, with more effective supervision of IOs (Investigating Officers).”
The ineffectiveness of the justice system is one of the key reasons why the Rape Survivors Justice Campaign is fighting for specialised sexual offences courts across South Africa. These courts would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the system, ensuring that more rapists go to jail. An increase in the conviction rates for rape cases will also help restore people’s faith in the criminal justice system.
Read more about some of the factors that influence rape case attrition in our next article.
Download the full RAPSSA Report: Rape Justice in South Africa
Report citation: Mercilene Machisa, Ruxana Jina, Gerard Labuschagne, Lisa Vetten, Lizle Loots, Sheena Swemmer, Bonita Meyersfeld, Rachel Jewkes. (2017). Rape Justice In South Africa: A Retrospective Study Of The Investigation, Prosecution And Adjudication Of Reported Rape Cases From 2012. Pretoria, South Africa. Gender and Health Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council.
Some important terms:
Attrition: the filtering process by which cases drop out of the criminal justice system.
J88: the standard medical examination form that is completed by a healthcare provider for medico-legal cases. The form is used during trials to provide evidence of findings during a medical examination after a general assault or rape.
Nolle prosequi: A prosecutor’s decision to decline to prosecute.
Withdrawal: this is when the prosecutor decides to retract a matter, this is not final, and the matter can be re-enrolled. This can happen if there is insufficient evidence and the investigating officer is required to complete further investigation. In the case of victims this means expression by the victim that they are no longer interested in pursuing a case for different reasons.