Aftermath: Working with the Criminal Justice System

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), rape is the second most violent crime, trailing only murder. After the occurrence of sexual assault, a victim/survivor can be experiencing a multitude of effects that make the reporting process difficult, from shock and anxiety to denial or fear.

By knowing what to expect from the reporting process, victims/survivors can prepare for what is to come. It is important to remember that the only chance for an offender to be brought to justice is working within the system. Also, because many rapists are repeat offenders, reporting the crime to the police can potentially help prevent future sexual violence from occurring.

The important steps for a sexual violence victim to take after an attack are:

  • Find a safe place somewhere safe
  • Contact a trusted friend of family member
  • Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE to understand your options, next steps, and begin the recovery process. The hotline connects callers to their nearest rape crisis center, and is accessible 24/7.
  • Receive medical attention as soon as possible, including a sexual assault forensic exam ("rape kit"). Learn more about a forensic medical exam now.
  • Contact local law enforcement or local rape crisis centers (800.656.HOPE can connect callers) to report crime and start the recovery process.

Pressing Charges
There is a difference between reporting the attack and choosing to press charges. A victim may choose not to immediately press charges following a report to police for a number of reasons, including emotional trauma. While there is no barrier to reporting the crime even months afterwards, contacting the police and informing them as soon as possible will allow for the strongest evidence to be brought to light. It is also important to remember the positive impact that can come from taking control of the situation and bringing an offender to justice.

There are certain circumstances in which the prosecutor will move forward with charges based solely on the evidence presented. For instances, cases involving incidents of sexual violence may be pursued by the state regardless of the victim’s decision to be involved with the investigation. Learn more about the laws in your state.

Many sexual assault cases are resolved through a plea bargain. A plea bargain is a term that refers to an agreement between the prosecutor and defendant’s representatives, in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a crime in return for a reduction in penalty, such as a lighter sentence. In instances in which a plea bargain is reached, there is a high probability that a victim/survivor will get justice without having to testify; about 95% of convictions are obtained by way of a plea agreement.i

Note: There is no guarantee that a case will end with a plea bargain.

Move Forward with Prosecution?

In recent years, law enforcement officials and other members of the criminal justice system have received increased training in order to improve their understanding when working with victims/survivors.ii Training has helped law enforcement officials to better support the victim through the process, which may reinforce the feeling that the law is working on the victim’s behalf.

Pursuing charges against a rapist may be empowering for survivors. It is important, however for victims/survivors to be aware of the intricacies in moving a case forward to prosecution.

Crimes of sexual violence are tried in criminal court, with the state acting as the prosecuting party.iii Typically, the victim acts as witness on behalf of the state. There are still many factors prosecutors take into consideration when deciding whether or not a case can be moved forward to trial:

  • Is the offender known?
  • Is there a ways to prove non-consent?
  • Is there forensic evidence (DNA) or other physical evidence to corroborate?
  • Are there witnesses? Is the victim willing and able to testify?

If a prosecution team feels that they are not able to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, they may not move forward with prosecuting the crime.

Learn more about reporting and conviction rates

Going to Trial
If the case does in fact go to trial, the victim will generally be asked to testify. Although there are no guarantees, prosecutors often have legal tools they can use to protect the victim in court, such as a rape shield law, which limits what the defense can ask the victim about prior sexual history. The prosecutor can also file legal motions to try to protect the victim from having to disclose other personal information.iv

It’s important for victims/survivor to discuss any concerns s/he may have over the disclosure of personal information with the prosecutor and/or his/her attorney. In some areas, victims/survivors may also work with their local rape crisis center’s victim advocates, or legal advocates. These professionals can answer questions and explain the criminal justice process in more depth.

To find a rape crisis center near you, visit:

Testifying in Criminal Court
It can be nerve racking to speak in public, as well as in a courtroom. Many survivors are anxious about speaking publicly about their experience. One of the best ways to start calming anxieties is by appreciating the power and worth of testimony.

Here are a few tips for victims/survivors:v

  • Learn as much as possible about the case before it begins
  • Know your limits; take time to catch your breath with brief pauses
  • Stay hydrated; take sips of water throughout questioning
  • Do not look at the defendant; keep eyes focused on who is asking the questions
  • Remain strong and certain of your right to tell your story; trust your memory and feelings
  • If at any time you're feeling overwhelmed, ask the judge or prosecutor for a short break
  • Don't let the defense attorney get to you, he or she is just doing their job

Other Resources for Help
Throughout the criminal justice proceedings, victims may need additional support to get through what may be a stressful experience. To get the support you deserve, call 800.656.HOPE or visit the Online Hotline.

Learn more about sexual assault crime victim's rights, visit:
Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) — Office of Justice Programs (DOJ)

Victim Law

iBureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties, 2002 at 28 . ("[In felony cases filed in May 2002 in the nation's seventy-five largest counties guilty pleas accounted for 95% of the estimated 31,772 convictions obtained within 1 year of arrest . . . . ");

iiSchwartz, Martin. National Institute of Justice Visiting Fellowship: Police Investigation of Rape—Roadblocks and Solutions, 2010.

iiiAfter Sexual Assault. An Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence Air and Resource Collection, 2011.

ivFAQ: Rape Shield Laws. The National Center for Victims of Crime. 2010.

This product was supported by grant number 2009-D1-BX-K023 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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