Data snapshot shows few sex assaults in Austin are prosecuted

4:35 p.m Wednesday, March 8, 2017 Local

The city’s Public Safety Commission had asked Austin police officials for a snapshot of how sexual violence cases are resolved. What they got was a sobering reminder that most sex assault prosecutions don’t lead to convictions.

During a presentation at the commission’s monthly meeting Tuesday, police officials gave a breakdown of 113 sexual assaults reported from January to March 2015 to show where these cases were today. Officials said they chose this three-month period to look at a sample of cases that had had some time to move through the criminal justice process.

Only 10 of the sexual assault cases — or less than 9 percent — led to arrests, the data showed. In 49 of them, Travis County prosecutors said they didn’t have enough evidence to make a case. In 40 others, the victim didn’t want police to pursue the case, officials said.

The figures are representative of what happens in most sexual assault cases across the country, victims’ advocates said Wednesday.

“I would say that’s pretty normal in terms of what we usually see. … There’s room for improvement in our community and most communities,” said Coni Stogner, who works for the SAFE Alliance, a victims’ advocacy group that handles the vast majority of sexual assault forensic exams in Austin.

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The Austin police presentation came at a time when city and county officials are fretting about how the city’s DNA lab’s closure — which occurred in June after a state commission questioned the lab’s testing methods — is affecting case turnover. However, even before the police DNA lab closed, most sexual assault cases already appeared to be destined to fall apart or stretch for years.

A few of the 10 cases that resulted in arrest are still pending. Of those:

• Four of the cases led to charges other than sexual assault: assault, aggravated assault, criminal trespass and harassment.

• One case was dismissed.

• One case is still pending as officials await DNA evidence results.

• One case is still pending in court.

• One perpetrator was sentenced to three years in prison.

• One perpetrator took a plea deal and served 120 days in jail.

Of the remaining 103 cases, 12 are awaiting DNA evidence results, one is still open and another is pending prosecutorial review. However, the majority were suspended: Prosecutors declined to pursue 49 of the cases, often because they were unable to prove the offense, and police suspended 40, mostly because the victim didn’t want police to pursue the case.

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“In the majority of our rape cases, the offender is known,” said Austin Assistant Police Chief Joe Chacon, who spoke at the meeting. “There are many times where the victim does not want to go forward with that investigation, and we can’t proceed with it for that reason.”

Chacon said the Police Department’s Victims Services counselors always talk with victims after a sexual assault is reported to help them deal with the trauma of the situation. The better a victim is coping, the easier it is for police to work with them, he said.

“But ultimately, it’s up to each individual survivor what they want to do,” Chacon said.

The Public Safety Commission didn’t take any specific action or make a recommendation in response to the report.

The vast majority of sexual assault perpetrators will not go jail or prison, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a national anti-sexual violence organization. Out of every 1,000 rapes in the U.S., about 57 lead to arrest, the network said.

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If Austin officials want sexual assault victims to come forward, Stogner said, those victims need to feel supported, and the reporting and criminal justice process needs to be easy to navigate.

The SAFE Alliance would like to see faster turn-around for evidence testing, Stogner said. She also said the University of Texas’ Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault published a blueprint for police to help them understand how to best investigate these kinds of cases and work with sexual assault victims.

“We need to work better across the board to see where we can be more supportive at all stages,” which applies to the SAFE Alliance, prosecutors and police, she said.

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