Last year, the nation was enraged when a judge gave Brock Turner six months of jail time for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Most seemed to agree that this was a gross miscarriage of justice and expressed disbelief that something like this could happen. Unfortunately, this is far from an anomaly; our legal system fails to protect women all the time, from victims of rape to those seeking protection from abuse.
Brock Turner’s case is far from the only example of how the legal system fails rape victims. In fact, for every hundred rapes, only forty percent are reported to police and only three percent of rapists serve time behind bars. Police and investigators are notably bad at handling rape cases; USA Today reported that they found 70,000 untested rape kits in a study covering 1,000 police agencies. Studies continuously demonstrate that police harass victims, pressure them not to press charges, and fail to investigate properly.
If the case does make it to court, the victim then has to convince a judge and jury that their story is true, which is incredibly difficult, because they are forced to recount what was likely the most traumatic experience of their life to a room full of strangers. In many cases the victim may seem stoic or unemotional, which may convince the jury that they are lying. This is in fact a very common experience among those who experience trauma; it’s known as tonic immobility, in which the person becomes frozen and dissociative. After recounting what happened to them, their character is viciously attacked on the cross-examination. Although rape shield laws, in theory, prevent the defense from asking such questions, victims are often questioned about what they were wearing, whether they were drinking, and their previous sexual history. It seems that in today’s society, once a woman says yes, she loses the right to say no.
Police and courts are also failing to protect victims of domestic violence. In a notable case, a Florida judge held a victim in contempt of the court and sentenced her to three days in jail because she did not appear to testify against a man who attempted to choke her. A former prosecutor, Jeanne Gold, fears that this sends the wrong message to domestic violence victims: that they cannot depend on courts to keep them safe. “The system failed her," she said to the Daily Beast. “She reached out and it failed her." There are countless other examples of the system’s failure to protect women like this one. For example, in 2012, a man was arrested outside his ex-girlfriend’s workplace for stalking. The police found both binoculars and a gun on him. His sentence? A year and a half of probation. Pam Wiseman, the director of New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, believes this isn’t going far enough. “When people commit acts of abuse and there are no consequences, they are emboldened to do more," she said. “One of the worst things our system can do, and it’s something our system does all the time, is act like it’s no big deal (Albuquerque Journal)." Terrified women across the country turn to police for help, but for too many, help doesn’t come.
Abuse advocates agree that something needs to be done, but many are unsure of what steps to take. Wiseman believes that more money should be put into identifying and monitoring offenders, and she also believes that police, probation and parole officers, and prosecutors should work together more closely to catch escalating violence. A few states have already implemented this type of plan. In sexual assault cases, making sure that rape kits are tested could be crucial in convicting a rapist. One thing that almost everyone can agree on is that it’s time for change.