Last week, the Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC decried the “catastrophic” decline in prosecutions for rape.
“We are witnessing”, she wrote, “the decriminalisation of rape. In some cases, we are enabling persistent predatory sex offenders to go on to re-offend in the knowledge that they are highly unlikely to be held to account”.
Can you imagine society tolerating such a statement about any other serious crime? What if murder was virtually ‘decriminalised,’ or even burglary?
Of course, rape is not (usually) fatal, but as someone who was raped at the age of 14 I know that it is an act that can destroy a life all the same. It has a long term if not permanent psychological impact on the victim.
It is considered one of the most serious crimes for a reason, with a maximum penalty of life in prison.
However while on paper we act tough on rapists, in reality, both society and the justice system in England and Wales seem increasingly content to turn a blind eye to sexual crimes.
According to the charity Rape Crisis, approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men aged 16 – 59 experience rape, attempted rape or sexual assault by penetration in England and Wales alone every year.
However, conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator.
This is a choice we as a society are making. According to Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies: “Like domestic violence, rape and other sexual assaults have long been seen as under-policed and under-prosecuted.”
Rape is a difficult crime to prosecute, yes, but the figures are truly dismal and getting worse. In the year to September 2019, about 4% of all rape cases reported to the police were referred to the CPS. Of these, just over three quarters made it to court.
The proportion making it to court in that time has more than halved. So this is about resources and priorities, not about the credibility of the case itself.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In Scotland, there was a 43% increase in convictions for rape and attempted rape between 2017-18 and 2018-19. We are still dealing with shockingly low numbers in the wider context of the numbers suffering rape but it is an improvement on the scenario in England and Wales.
As the Covid-19 pandemic response has shown, there is no reason why Wales cannot do a better job than the UK Government in handling a crisis.
And while it is getting worse there is nothing new about the UK Government’s failed handling of the crime of rape and sexual assault. It is a long term, chronic problem that comes down to attitudes towards the crime.
As we have seen in countless examples over the past decades, a willingness to turn a blind eye to such crimes seems to go to the heart of the British establishment. So why do we trust Westminster to police this in the wider society?
Are our attitudes in society in Wales any better? Perhaps not. A culture of victim-blaming is rife here as elsewhere. This is not an argument in support of the myth of Wales’ innate moral superiority.
But at least bringing police and justice powers to Wales would give us an opportunity to succeed where ‘England and Wales’ has failed.
At the very least the Welsh Government could give police and courts, and services for victims of sexual assault, the resources they need to get to grips with the problem.
Continuing along our present trajectory, where criminals essentially know that they can attack people and destroy lives with impunity, should be intolerable to us all.