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$1.2M Funds Study on Sexual Assault Case Processing

Grant Examines Barriers for Police, Prosecutors, Victims

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By Sandra Seitz

Rape and sexual assault are crimes that continue to impact victims and society long after the incident is over. While many victims choose not to report the crime, those that do may face further trauma, disbelief and months, or years, of legal procedure. From first report to final sentencing, those in criminal justice — police and prosecutors — are faced with challenging and complicated decisions. A frustrating number of cases “drop out” along the way.

Three professors from the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department have been awarded a major grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) of the U.S. Department of Justice to better understand what factors influence the sexual violence case attrition (drop-out) rate. The $1.2 million, three-year grant to UMass Lowell was the only award NIJ made in a nationwide, competitive proposal process to investigate this issue.

“Our team offers a combination of expertise in policing and courts with victim knowledge and research,” says Prof. Linda Williams, co-principal investigator on the project. “The NIJ’s award is a mark of confidence and the grant provides a wonderful opportunity to advance our knowledge and work to find justice for victims of sexual violence.”

The researchers will establish partnerships with up to eight communities — urban, suburban and rural — to explore the various and diverse elements that may be contributing to successful completion or attrition in sexual violence cases. They will study the case records from the first report through lodging of criminal charges, arrest, prosecution and sentencing. They will collect quantitative and qualitative data and interview those involved in the decision making, including patrol officers, detectives, prosecutors, victims and victim advocates. 

“The research will help us identify challenges the police face in handling sexual assault cases,” says Assoc. Prof. April Pattavina, co-principal investigator. “Also, it will chart relationships between the police, prosecutors and victim advocates, so we can give our community partners an overview of how their organizational structures are working.”

Police departments and prosecutors have made many innovations, including special victim units and specialized training for those who interact with victims, to improve their handling of sexual violence cases. The research will offer insights into their effectiveness.

“We will be able to identify the best practices that are emerging and disseminate that information,” says Asst. Prof. Melissa Morabito. “It’s very exciting.”

Two national organizations, the Police Executive Research Forum and the Women’s Law Project, are affiliated with the project and will ensure that knowledge gained from the research will reach police chiefs and key stakeholders.

“Barriers to sexual violence case processing and successful prosecution continue to trouble victims and the community,” says Williams. “We hope to contribute to improvements in responses to cases, including justice in investigations, case processing and treatment of victims of sexual violence.”

Students will be active contributors to the research. UMass Lowell offers the only Ph.D. in criminal justice and criminology at a public university in New England, with 21 current students. Several are working on the project already. Each year of this project, at least one full-time doctoral research associate position will be offered.