Processing Serious Crimes in Alaska: Do Differences Exist?

Processing Serious Crimes in Alaska: Do Differences Exist?

A.B. Dellinger

Dellinger, A.B.. (Spring 1993). "Processing Serious Crimes in Alaska: Do Differences Exist?" Alaska Justice Forum 10(1): 1, 5-8. Comparing data on rape cases in Alaska with similar data for other violent crimes may help to clarify how the crime of rape is handled within the justice system. Comparison of criminal justice processing for 1986-1991 of homicide, rape, robbery, and assault cases supports the conclusion that the percentage of persons arrested, prosecuted, and brought to trial on the original arrest charge is lowest for rape among the four violent crimes. Other differences between dispositions for persons arrested for rape and those arrested within the other three crime categories are also evident.

The handling of rape cases has been a matter of concern for many years. Much effort has been made to ensure that rapes in Alaska are fully reported and successfully prosecuted. Comparing data on rape cases in Alaska with similar data for other violent crimes may help to clarify the picture of how the crime of rape is handled within the justice process.

Table 1 illustrates the extent to which rape and other violent crimes occurred between 1986 and 1991. In 1986 the number of reported homicides in Alaska was 49; reported rapes totaled 366; robberies, 456; and assaults, 2083. In 1991, the number of reported homicides was 45; reported rapes totaled 530; robberies, 643; and assaults, 2192.

Figures from the Alaska Offender-Based Transaction Statistics (OBTS) for 1986-1991 can be used to show how the crimes of homicide, rape, robbery and assault were processed from arrest through disposition. Within OBTS, and in the context of this article, the term homicide refers to the category of crime covered by Alaska Statutes 11.41.100, 11.41.110, 11.41.120, and 11.41.130. Rape refers to the category covered by 11.41.410, 11.41.420, 11.41.425, and 11.41.430. Robbery includes 11.41.500 and 11.41.510. Assault covers 11.41.200, 11.41.210, 11.41.220, 11.41.230, and 11.41.250.

Table 2 contains the number of murder, rape, robbery, and assault cases disposed by the Alaska criminal justice system from 1986 through 1991. Disposition occurs at different points and involves various actions. A guilty plea can be entered before the case reaches trial. The charges can be dropped; the offender can be tried on the original arrest charge; or at some point, the charges can be reduced and the arrestee tried on a lesser charge. This table contains only those cases that resulted in prosecution or court action within the same crime category as at arrest. For example, of the 84 arrests for murder in 1989, 75 were prosecuted for murder, and of those 75, 50 were brought to trial for murder. (Note: The OBTS figures used in this article do not reflect changes in charges which occurred within the same crime category as defined above, but rather only those in which the prosecution or trial charge was in an entirely different category. For example, an offender may be charged at arrest for murder in the first degree, but ultimately convicted for murder in the second degree. The OBTS data base subsumes both charges under the category of homicide. Hence, in all likelihood, the incidence of charge reduction is actually greater than this article indicates. "Crime Case Statistics" in the accompanying box provides further explanation of the data sources.)

The percentages of persons who were arrested and then charged under the same crime category at prosecution is fairly equal for the crimes of murder, rape, and robbery over the six-year period. Assault arrests resulted in a higher percentage of cases going to prosecution on assault charges.

In contrast, when the percentages of arrests that went to the courts (Table 2) are compared across crimes and years, a different picture emerges. The crime of homicide had between 58.8 per cent and 75.6 per cent of arrests brought to trial on homicide charges; robbery had between 52 per cent and 58.5 per cent; and assault had between 40.6 per cent and 47.8 per cent. Rape had a much lower rate of arrests brought to trial - between 26.8 per cent and 34.8 per cent - with the two lowest percentages (26.8% and 27.1%) occurring during the most recent years (1990 and 1991, respectively).

A similar pattern exists when comparing the number of arrests for murder, rape, robbery and assault that resulted in convictions within the same crime category. Rape arrests that ended in convictions under rape range between 24.7 per cent and 31.2 per cent. Conviction rates for the three other crimes (for convictions within the same category) ranged between 52.6 per cent and 71.8 per cent for murder, 45.3 per cent and 58.5 per cent for robbery, and 37.5 per cent and 46.3 per cent for assault. Again, the lowest percentage of convictions occurred for rape during 1990 and 1991. The percentages for assault have steadily risen from a low (37.5%) in 1986 to the highest rates in 1989, 1990, and 1991.

If a case reaches trial on a charge within the original arrest category, the percentages of persons who then are convicted are similar for all four crime types (Table 3 and Figure 1). Homicide ranged from 89.1 per cent to 96.6 per cent; rape, 87.1 per cent to 95.2 per cent; robbery, 87.2 per cent to 100 per cent; and, assault, 90.7 per cent to 96.8 per cent.

Some arrests for murder, rape, robbery, and assault end with a conviction within a lesser charge category (see above note). Figure 2 displays both the percentage of persons arrested for one of the four violent crimes and then convicted on the same or greater charge and those convicted within a lesser charge category. Assault arrests appear to have the lowest overall probability for conviction within a lesser charge category; rape and robbery appear to have the highest. In more recent years, murder and robbery fall somewhere in between.

Figure 2. Convictions in Alaska Following Arrest for Homicide, Rape, Robbery, or Assault, 1986-1991

Arrests for murder, rape, robbery or assault which ended in a conviction of some type (same, greater or lesser charge) are shown in Table 4. Sixty-eight to 78 per cent of murder arrests ended in conviction; 40 to 48 per cent of rape arrests; 61 to 77 per cent of robbery arrests; and 44 to 53 per cent of assault arrests. In the period between 1986 and 1991, an arrestee would have had the greatest chance of being convicted if he/she were arrested for murder or robbery. During this period, convictions were least likely for rape and assault arrests, although from 1987 through 1990, the percentage of assault arrests ending in convictions showed a steady increase to around 50 per cent.

For those persons convicted within their arrest charge category, the percentage sentenced to prison (Table 3) and the average sentence length (Figure 3) can be computed and compared over the 1986-1991 time frame. Between 92.9 per cent and 100 per cent of the persons arrested and convicted for murder were sentenced to prison, with an average sentence length ranging from a low of 23.8 years in 1988 to a high of 35.5 years in 1991. Rape convictions resulted in prison sentences for between 82.6 per cent and 95.3 per cent, with sentences averaging in length from a 1991 low of 4.9 years to a high of 7.0 years in 1988. The lowest average sentence length for robbery arrest convictions (5.2 years) occurred in 1988 and the highest in 1987 (7.4 years) for the 79.4 per cent to 89.8 per cent who were sentenced to prison. Between 48.7 per cent and 57.5 per cent of assault convictions ended in imprisonment, with an average sentence length ranging from a low of .67 years in 1987 to a high of .82 years in 1989.

Figure 3. Mean Length of Sentence in Alaska for Persons Convicted of Homicide, Rape, Robbery, or Assault, 1986-1991

This analysis of the OBTS disposition statistics for murder, rape, robbery and assault over the time period of 1986 to 1991 supports several points regarding the processing of rape cases:

1. The overall percentage of persons arrested, prosecuted, and then brought to trial on rape charges is lowest among all four violent crimes.

2. The percentage of persons arrested and then brought to trial for rape charges was lowest during the most recent years for which statistics are available, 1990 and 1991, when the number of reported rapes had risen.

3. The percentage of persons arrested and then convicted on rape charges was also lowest during 1990 and 1991, when reported rapes were highest for the five-year period.

4. The percentage of persons arrested for rape and convicted within a lesser charge category is higher than for murder or assault and similar to that for robbery.

5. The likelihood of being convicted on any charge when arrested for rape was lower (44.2%) on average than for any other crime. (Only assault (48.2%) was a close second.) Once a case is in the courts on a specified charge, the rates of conviction among crime types are similar. However, before a rape case reaches court, it is more likely than any of the four violent crimes to be dropped or reduced to a lesser charge. Moreover, rape arrests are less likely than murder, robbery, and assault arrests to end in a conviction of any sort.

A.B. Dellinger is a Research Associate with the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Unit of the Justice Center.