Rape rise misleading

March 14, 1997

Your interview with Sue Lees ("Victims of justice", THES, March 7) argues the case for special legal procedures, including changing practice on the admissibility of evidence, in rape cases.

This case is made on the basis of frightening figures, which you box under the provocative headline "Sex crimes soar but convictions plummet". These figures, widely cited by campaigners for rape reform, make the case that rapes have more than doubled while the conviction rate has collapsed.

Many campaigners for reform in rape laws use such statistics as evidence that large numbers of women are at risk of rape and that the law does not serve women well. Both these points are at issue.

First, the statistics do not show an increase in rapes but an increase in recorded rapes. This is largely because of changes in police recording practices following a 1985 Home Office instruction to record all reports of rape (rather than no-criming cases which were unlikely to result in a conviction).

The fact that the police and the legal system have become more sympathetic to rape victims is also likely to have had an effect on the numbers of reported rapes. There is no evidence that actual numbers of sex crimes are on the rise.

Second, it is the case that numbers of prosecutions have risen. The Criminal Prosecution Service has dramatically increased the number of prosecutions for rape (which have risen from 565 in 1985 to 936 in 1994). However, the number of convictions has remained constant - there were 418 convictions in 1985 and 432 in 1994. Rather than official inaction, the way that rape is dealt with by the legal system indicates that, despite the greater effort into getting convictions, a similar number of convictable cases of rape are committed each year.

The statistics have been used to paint a false picture - that women are more at risk of rape than before - and consequently that rape trials should be conducted differently from other criminal prosecutions. Both of these arguments are demeaning to women, who deserve neither to live in fear of sex crime, nor to be given patronising special treatment in court.

Sara Hinchliffe

Centre for continuing education University of Sussex

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