US & Canada

Canada's justice system lets sex assaults fall through the cracks

Jennelle Polok says the justice system needs to do more to prosecute sexual assaults Image copyright Submitted photo
Image caption Jennelle Polok says the justice system needs to do more to prosecute sexual assaults

Sex assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes in Canada. But with only one out of every 10 sex assaults reported by Canadian police resulting in a conviction, is it any wonder that victims doubt justice will be served?

When Jennelle Polok was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance three years ago, she says she hesitated before going to the police.

"It was hard for me to wrap my head around - was this really crossing a line or did I just make this up I my head?"

She kept playing back the night of her attack over and over again in her mind. How she had tried to leave when he got too close to her on the couch, how he had thrown her against the wall, and then onto the couch before taking off her underwear.

"I just froze," she says. "It was like watching a movie taking place, where your floating above yourself. You can see every action that is passing, but you can't do anything about it."

After a month, she said she had to come forward.

"I just thought, I would never do this to somebody, this is wrong," the 31-year-old elementary school teacher told the BBC.

Police eventually charged her alleged attacker with sexual assault, the case made its way through a preliminary hearing and finally, to court.

After spending nearly two years in court proceedings, including five hours on the witness stand, Ms Polok heard the news - her rapist had been acquitted due to lack of evidence.

"I felt happy that it had even made it to the final court," she says, her voice rising. "I should not have felt happy that it made it that far, I should have felt happy that he was convicted."

Ms Polok's story is all too common, a new report from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics revealed on Thursday.

Over a six-year-period, only 20% of alleged sex assaults actually made it to court; 12% of sexual assaults reported by police led to a conviction; and only 7% led to jail time.

The proportion of sex assaults that lead to the accused going to prison is probably even smaller, considering that previous studies have found that only a fraction of sexual assaults are ever reported to police.

Once they are reported to the police, incidents may be classified as "founded", which means police believe a violation of the law took place, or "unfounded", in which case they are dismissed. About one in five sex assaults reported to police are dismissed as unfounded, according to an investigation by the Globe and Mail.

This most recent study by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics followed 93,501 sexual assaults reported by police as founded as they made their way through the justice system.

The chance of a sex assault moving forward in the justice system - from charges being laid to jail time - dropped by half each step along the way, the report found.

"Sexual assault cases experienced attrition at all levels of the criminal justice system," wrote Cristine Rotenberg, the report's author.

Sexual assaults are more prone to dropping out of the justice system than physical assaults, the report found, especially in the early stages. But sexual assaults that did make it to court had similar conviction rates, and often harsher sentences, than physical assaults.

"It may be suggested that the small proportion of sexual assaults that proceed to court are among the most serious in nature or have the greatest likelihood of conviction based on available evidence," Ms Rotenberg wrote.

Ms Rotenburg's study notes that "harmful gender stereotypes and rape myths" play a role in keeping sexual assaults from going to court and getting convictions.

Ms Polok remembers how when she took the stand, the defence asked her questions about what she was wearing, if she flirted with the accused, whom she had known, and if she had a crush on him.

"I thought we moved passed that, why are you asking me what I wore?" she says. "It should not happen, no means no."

They also asked her about her past recreational drug use, which she said made her feel ashamed.

"I was obviously embarrassed about it, as a professional, I do not want that to be known," she says.

Image copyright Thinkstock

Ultimately, she thinks those questions were designed to besmirch her character.

"The things they accuse you of make you feel like a horrible person," she says.

Her experience is not unique, says Holly Johnson, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.

"There is a lot of research out there that shows that rape myths really are alive and well and they are being practiced in the justice system," she says. Ms Johnson points to the latest data, which found that even when an attacker is identified by police, charges were only laid about two-thirds of the time.

Canadian police-reported sex assault statistics

  • Median age of victims was 18 years
  • 87% victims female
  • Median age of accused was 33
  • 98% male

This fear that they might not be believed, or might not see justice, is a big reason why so many sex assaults go unreported, research shows.

"Nearly half of sexual assault victims who did not report the crime to police cited reasons related to the hassle, burden or belief that they would not see a positive outcome in the justice system," Ms Rotenberg noted in her report.

But this delay in reporting can affect a case's success in court.

Sexual assaults that were reported on the same day were more than 2.5 times as likely to go to court as those that were reported a year after the incident, the report found.

An earlier Statistics Canada report found that the median delay in reporting to police was 25 days for sexual assaults, compared with only two days for physical assaults.

"Women come forward sometimes with a lot of trepidation," Ms Johnson says.

But when asked if she would go through the same ordeal again, knowing that her attacker would go free, Ms Polok says yes she would.

"I know I have impacted him in some way, and I hope that he has learned his lesson for the future."

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