When criticizing the performance of a public agency, it is important to determine whether actions that fall short of our expectations are examples of easy jobs that were bungled or difficult jobs that demand additional effort and support.
Investigating allegations of sexual assault is never easy.
But a recent survey conducted by a member of the faculty at Brigham Young University came up with a startling figure: Of 270 rape cases in a random sample chosen from among those reported to police in Salt Lake County over eight years, only 6 percent were formally prosecuted. Only 16 resulted in a conviction or guilty plea.
The survey did not include every case where a person reported a sexual assault. But it was limited to those that were screened by a specially trained sexual-assault nurse examiner, cases where a successful prosecution might be more, not less, likely.
Granted that some rape reports are not justified, and some others present so little physical evidence that rival versions of the truth are all but impossible to sort out. But the idea that only 6 percent of any sample was worthy of the filing of formal charges is hard to comprehend, much less justify.
As outlined in the BYU study, the small number of prosecutions comes from facts that are immutable aspects of human nature, and from flaws in the criminal justice system.
Sexual assault cases, even when handled by the most sensitive, highly trained professionals, are fraught with trauma and, often, feelings of shame and guilt harbored by people who, to the rest of us, are clearly victims. That makes victims reluctant to come forward, to follow through on a long and arduous process, to testify in open court.
But that inevitable difficulty associated with rape cases just makes it that much more important that the criminal justice system step up its efforts at finding the truth. That means more training for police officers and emergency medical workers at all levels, even in communities and departments that are already making such efforts.
Most importantly, though, it means more investment of state and local tax dollars in the chemical analysis of the physical evidence gathered from victims and crime scenes, gatherings with the unfortunate name of “rape kits,” which too often are backlogged on the shelves of police departments or the state crime lab for weeks or months.
Yes, it is easy for critics of any public shortfall to say that the answer to the problem is more money. But, in this case, it's hard to see that anything else will do the job.