04/03/2012 12:12 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2012

Seeing Signs of Progress in Cook County's Response to Sexual Assault

According to Human Rights Watch, the arrest rate for sexual assault in Illinois is only 11 percent. While this statistic is dismal, it's sadly typical of law enforcement's response to sexual assault in the United States. Together, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) and our allies in the rape crisis community advocate for resources, funding and reforms that will support sexual assault survivors and hold perpetrators accountable. There's good news to report on the law enforcement front, as Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's Office recently detailed how safeguards have been put into place to ensure the proper charging and prosecution of sex crimes.

The rape crisis community in Chicago has reported that they rarely see acquaintance rape charged as a felony, and there was no data available to assuage this concern. Another area of scrutiny has been Cook County's "felony review" process, through which a state's attorney decides whether or not to bring felony charges against a defendant. In 2009, CAASE gathered the rape crisis community to address these issues with the State's Attorney's Office, and this advocacy led to the formation of a Sexual Assault Advisory Group. Hearing our concerns, Jennifer Gonzales, Chief of the Sex Crimes Division at the State's Attorney's Office, has stepped up and recognized the need for more resources, data and training.

Under the Alvarez Administration, the office has added two prosecutors who are dedicated specifically to addressing the issue of acquaintance rape. Ms. Gonzales has also helped to implement a multi-tier review process to ensure that sex crimes cases are being charged properly. There are now an additional eight trained sex crime specialists (13 in total) who review every sex crimes case being handled in the county. If a specialist disagrees with the initial decision of the felony review, the case is brought to a supervisor. Under the new system, sex crimes that are labeled as misdemeanors are now flagged and reviewed -- an important step because sexual assault is a felony.

In an effort to empower police and prosecutors to collaborate and effectively charge sexual assault, the State's Attorney's Office has increased its training efforts. Together with rape crisis centers, they have trained the prosecutors who work on felony review, and Ms. Gonzales has made presentations to police to help them better understand the office's approach to charging sex crimes. At least seven trainings in the past year have reached more than 600 participants, including detectives, prosecutors, police and advocates. Improving skills and communication among law enforcement is certainly a sign of progress.

In response to the need for more detailed data, including information about acquaintance rape, Ms. Gonzales conducted a hand count of sex crimes cases. Their current database system does not allow for detailed collection of demographic information, and the hand count was a laborious process. Cases from a several month period in 2011 were counted, and more than half of the cases involving acquaintances were charged as felonies. By taking on the challenge of compiling of these statistics, the State's Attorney's Office acknowledged that transparency matters, and also revealed that they lack resources to efficiently track the kind of information advocates need.

There is much more work to be done to help survivors of sexual assault. Every day, CAASE's attorneys work with survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice. We provide free legal counsel to people who are pursuing stay-away orders, or the right to return to work, or simply recognition from the courts that they were harmed. We must, as a community, believe survivors who come forward. We must advocate for more resources to hold perpetrators accountable, which is an issue of public safety and justice. We applaud the Cook County State's Attorney's Office for their leadership and encourage the community to support the prosecution of sexual assault.

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