Study examines sexual assault survivor experiences
Ingrid D. Johnson, Randi Breager, and Katherine H. TePas
The Alaska Department of Public Safety is working with the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center to better understand how sexual assaults reported to the Alaska State Troopers are handled and perceived, and which factors shape the likelihood of achieving justice for sexual assault victim-survivors. A final report including recommendations for practice improvement is expected mid-2020.
Questions of justice
What is justice? Whether posed in the classroom, workplace or community, this question elicits numerous responses. Does justice mean holding an offender accountable for their actions? Does it mean punishing the offender, regardless of accountability? Ensuring a fair trial, where a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Is justice procedural, where fair and respectful treatment is an outcome in itself? Is it all, many, or none of the above? If justice is multifaceted, are certain forms of justice more important, and should they be prioritized over others?
Although these questions make for lively theoretical discussions, they also have practical implications.
Two overlapping functions of state-sanctioned criminal justice systems are to deter crime and to acknowledge and reaffirm the legal values of society (Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1988). However, victimization surveys have consistently found that rates of reporting crimes to the criminal justice system are low, with the 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) finding that only about half of victimization experiences were reported to police (Morgan & Truman, 2018). When our criminal justice system only has the possibility of meting out justice for half of crimes committed, its ability to deter crime and enforce values is called into question (Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1988). It is therefore worth asking: What is justice for victims of crime, and what role do our contemporary systems of criminal justice play in victims’ perceptions of justice? Answering these questions could open a discussion of how criminal justice systems might be modified or expanded to better create justice for victims of crime.
A limited body of research finds that that victims have varied perspectives on justice. These perspectives often diverge from “traditional” notions of justice (such as arrest, conviction and incarceration) and instead include factors such as community and official acknowledgement of victims’ experiences, as well as procedural justice elements such as being treated with dignity, being given a voice, and having control in the justice process (Clark, 2010; Herman, 2005; Holder, 2018; McGlynn & Westmarland, 2018).
SAKI research in Alaska
Alaska has been presented with the opportunity to explore these questions through the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI). The Alaska Department of Public Safety has been awarded one of numerous BJA SAKI research grants across the country and is working with the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center to answer three research questions:
- What are key stakeholders’ experiences with how Alaska State Troopers (AST) sexual assault cases are handled (including investigations, prosecutions, and victim engagement and support), and how do those experiences compare to their perceptions of just outcomes (i.e., justice)?
- For victim-survivors, how common are these experiences and perceptions?
- Which factors shape the likelihood of achieving these just outcomes?
Although the national SAKI focuses more exclusively on the role of sexual assault kits (SAKs) in the just resolution of sexual assault cases, the Alaska SAKI (AK-SAKI) project focuses on sexual assault case processing more broadly. This is because SAK submission decisions may often be made based on the overall strength of a case above and beyond the SAK evidence, which in turn may be influenced by gender, race, and class biases (Campbell & Fehler-Cabral, 2018; U.S. Department of Justice, 2015). Therefore, recommendations for policy, practice, and/or training which are focused too narrowly on SAKs may risk addressing only one symptom of larger, more systematic problems in how sexual assaults are handled by formal agencies (Mulla, 2014).
In January 2019, the UAA Justice Center’s Assistant Professor Ingrid Johnson began collecting data to answer the first research question for this project. These data are qualitative (non-numerical) and are derived from semi-structured interviews (i.e., one-on-one, confidential conversations) with key stakeholders involved in adult sexual assault cases reported to the AST. Key stakeholder interviewees are divided into two different groups: first, adult sexual assault victim-survivors who reported a sexual assault to AST between 2006 and 2016; and second, system stakeholders, including Alaska state troopers, village public safety officers, victim advocates, sexual assault nurse examiners, sexual assault response team coordinators, prosecutors with the Alaska Department of Law, public defenders, judges, and Alaska State Crime Detection Laboratory forensic analysts. A total of approximately 80 key stakeholder interviews will be conducted (40 with victim-survivor stakeholders, and 40 with system stakeholders).
The one- to two-hour interviews focus on interview participants’ experiences with the reporting and investigation process, their perceptions of why and how the case (or cases) was handled the way it was, and what the participant wanted out of the process in order to achieve justice. For victim-survivors, the questions are framed in reference to their specific case. For system stakeholders, the questions are framed in reference to AST sexual assault cases more broadly.
While system stakeholders were randomly selected for interviews, victim-survivor recruitment required a more varied and sometimes personal approach. Johnson’s research team is working with advocacy and tribal groups, health care and victim service providers, and other partners across the state to reach as many victim-survivors as possible. They have used multiple mediums to disseminate information about the study, including recruitment flyers at physical locations, email and social media, and local media coverage. Potential participants contact Johnson, who screens them for eligibility and, if they are eligible, conducts the interview.
Understanding experiences and perceptions
After interviews are recorded and transcribed, research technicians identify and cross-validate themes and concepts. The goal is to understand what key stakeholders’ experiences are with how Alaska State Trooper sexual assault cases are handled (including investigations, prosecutions, and victim engagement and support), and how those experiences compare to the stakeholders’ perceptions of just outcomes, or justice. The data collected in this portion of the project will be useful for better understanding several aspects of sexual assault reporting processes and resolutions (see Table 1).
The research team will use the findings from the first research question to determine
which factors to measure and assess in the second and third research questions. Answering
these questions requires different, quantitative data to supplement the qualitative
interview data used in the first portion of the project (see Table 2). Electronic
records of incident reports from the Department of Public Safety and Department of
Law will provide some of these quantitative variables, such as victim-survivor demographics
(e.g., gender, age, race/ethnicity) and the relationship between the victim-survivor
and suspect. Other variables, such as whether survivors are treated with dignity,
will be gathered through surveys of sexual assault victim-survivors who have reported
to AST. The research team will use these quantitative data to address two questions:
first, how common the experiences and perceptions identified in the first portion
of the project are for victim-survivors, and second, what factors influence the likelihood
of achieving just outcomes.
This is one of the few projects directly incorporating victim-survivor voices in Alaska research. The findings will be used to develop a framework for agencies across the state to improve sexual assault investigations, prosecutions, and victim engagement and support.
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Ingrid D. Johnson is assistant professor at the UAA Justice Center. Randi Breager is criminal justice planner at the Alaska State Crime Detection Laboratory. Katie TePas is DVSA program coordinator with the Alaska State Troopers.
Image credit: Nick Foote / Shutterstock.com
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