Criminal Case Processing of Sexual Assaults in Alaska

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Discretion plays a role in nearly every facet of the American criminal justice system. It is widely regarded as necessary to do justice but is not without criticisms – especially when it leads to unfavorable or disparate treatment. The role of discretion in sexual assault cases has been particularly scrutinized. Since the majority of sexual assaults do not fit stereotypic beliefs about what constitutes a “real rape” and “genuine victim,” criminal justice officials use their discretion to filter these cases out of the justice system.

This study explored this issue by examining two stages of the criminal justice process: the police decision to refer cases for prosecution and the prosecutorial decision to accept referred cases. In doing so, it contributes to this body of literature in three ways. First, it included sexual assault cases that involve Alaska Native victims and suspects. Second, it addressed a gap in the theoretical scholarship by examining the downstream nature of police decision-making. And finally, it examined the formal reasons prosecutors give for charge dispositions.

This study found a significant amount of attrition of sexual assault cases as they progressed through the criminal justice system. Moreover, a combination of legally relevant and extralegal factors was found to be important, but not consistently across all types of sexual assaults. Among legal factors, the number of victim injuries was the most consistent predictor. Among extralegal factors, cases that involved Alaska Native suspects had significantly higher odds of case referral and case acceptance compared to white suspects. The effect of suspect race was particularly pronounced in cases with a white victim. Additionally, the findings suggest that not only are Native American defendants more likely to have their cases referred by police, but once referred, they are also more likely to have them accepted for prosecution.

Contrary to expectations, victim-suspect relationship, specifically non-stranger assaults, increased the odds of police referral compared to stranger cases. However, the opposite appears to be true for the decision to prosecute cases. Once referred, prosecutors were five times more likely to accept sexual assaults perpetrated by strangers. The implications of these findings are also discussed.