Thursday, July 31, 2014

Does the rarity of false rape reports justify assuming guilt?

In the weeks that succeeded Eliza Schultz’s petition for reforming the campus policies on sexual violence, another excellent writer at Hopkins named Juliana Vigorito endorsed the policy in a mostly fantastic article she penned for JHU Politik. There was one excerpt, however, from this article that I disagreed with. I’d like to respond to it here.
Vigorito wrote:

“The current policy notes that an accuser may request a change in their housing or class schedule. This places the onus of uprooting one’s lifestyle on the presumptive survivor. The word “presumptive” is apt here, as false accusations of sexual violence are only as common as false reports of any other violent crime nationally–that is to say, such instances hover around 2%. Given the fact that roughly 85% of all campus sexual assaults go unreported, the so-called false reporting is a myth. When a victim comes forward, statistically speaking, we ought to believe them. So it seems appropriate that, rather than obligating a survivor to rearrange their life after trauma, our University should instead apply housing or curricular changes to the accused perpetrator. Forcing a student to choose between changing classes mid-semester and feeling unsafe neither sufficiently provides support nor promotes academic success at a competitive institution like ours.”

Let’s examine this logic for a moment. Vigorito argues that because the rate of false reporting for sexual violence is no higher than the rate for violent crimes of a non-sexual nature, it’s sufficiently marginal to be ignored; the likelihood of a false report is so low, she concludes, that we can safely presume anyone who alleges sexual violence is telling he whole and unbiased truth of the matter.

But even her statistics are true (which this post will not address), there are two problems with this argument:
1. Would it not follow from this argument that because the alleged rates of false reporting are similar, we can likewise cast aside the possibility that the accuser is lying
in any other violent crime? Are accusations of murder, armed robbery, assault, battery, and arson to be presumed true, simply because it’s statistically unlikely that the accuser would make it up? If so, doesn’t this turn the cherished American principle of innocent before proven guilty on its head? And if not, what distinguishes sexual violence – a crime which, by the author’s confession, is exactly as likely to be reported inaccurately as these other violent crimes – as an exception to that principle?

2. As a general principle, is it fair to make judgments about individuals based on broad social statistics describing their demographics? Statistically, a variety of socio-economic factors make it such that black people are far more likely to commit violent crimes than white people in this country. Suppose there is both a white and a black suspect in a violent crime. Would it be just to hold the black man to a higher burden of proving his innocence than the white man, solely on the assumption that “statistically speaking,” he was more likely to have committed it? Or ought we not speak statistically when we’re making life-changing assumptions about the guilt or innocence of individual people?

1 comment:

  1. American law enforcement stepped on some serious constitutional boundaries when they started manufacturing rape statistics that no where near reflect reality.