Redefining rape

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Many of the estimated 213,000 victims in the U.S. each year will be forced to recover from their injuries—both physical and psychological—without the benefit of critical sources of emotional and clinical support.  Most will choose not to report their assailants and those who do are unlikely to see justice served.  According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), just 16.3% of rape cases lead to incarceration.

To meaningfully address this grave national challenge we need smarter strategies and greater resources.  Unfortunately, both are undermined by the reliance of policy makers on the faulty statistics contained in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR).

For 80 years, the Bureau has classified rape as, “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will,” a definition that excludes both male victims and victims drugged or under the influence of alcohol as well as those violated in other ways.  This means thousands of cases recorded by police departments that use broader and more accurate definitions go unreported in the UCR.  For example, in Chicago alone, all 1,400 documented rapes in 2010 were left out of the FBI’s count.  

It is unacceptable that these heinous crimes are excluded every year simply because the Bureau has neglected to update its definition for nearly a century.    

Unfortunately, this deficient data contributes to misleading conclusions about the incidence of rape with serious consequences to the tools we need to protect and assist victims.  As Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, recently stated, “The public has a right to know about the prevalence of crime and violent crime in our communities, and we know that data drives practices, resources, policies, and programs.”  

In October, when the FBI’s leadership was reportedly considering the issue, I led 41 of my Congressional colleagues in sending a letter to Director Robert Mueller, urging him to institute major changes in the way the Bureau classifies rape.  I was gratified a week later when an FBI subcommittee drafted a broad new definition for use in the UCR that would encompass the many forms this crime can take.

This is undoubtedly a positive step but the process is far from complete.  Another FBI committee that will meet this week must still endorse the new definition.  It must then receive the final approval of Director Mueller in order to take effect.  

In the coming months, we face a tough fight to preserve funding for critical programs that aid victims and help put their assailants behind bars.  The UCR data plays a key role in the allocation of vital resources for prevention, treatment and enforcement.  With so much hanging in the balance, it is imperative that the FBI move swiftly to adopt the proposed changes.  By taking this simple step and updating the Bureau’s definition to include all types of rape, we can make a real difference in the fight against this horrific crime. 

Roybal-Allard serves California's 34 district and is on the House Appropriations Committee.