The charging process and decision-making have been different in sexual assault cases. As such cases are numerous, and the prosecutors exercise discretion at the screening stage. Most of the sexual assault cases reported have been rejected at the same stage. A classic study of the deterioration of felony arrests in New York City, for instance, found that 43% of the cases were dismissed by the prosecutor in the late 20th Century. A recent study of charging decisions demonstrated in sexual assault cases in three major cities found that the dismissal rate was 5.6% in Philadelphia, 42.5% in Kansas City, and 41.4% in Miami (Spohn & Holleran, 2009). The prosecutors aim at avoiding uncertainty where conviction of the suspect by filing charges is unlikely. As such, the prosecutors’ assessment of convictability mainly stands on legally relevant factors, such as the gravity of the offense committed, the vigor of the evidence presented in the case, and the guilt of the defendant.
In addition, the difference from other cases arises when the prosecutors’ evaluation of convictability and, thus, their charging decisions reflect the impact of characteristics of the victim and suspect. Spohn et al. (2009) suggests that prosecutors attempt to predict how the background, behavior, and motivation of the suspect and victim will be interpreted by other decision makers, especially jurors. “The prosecutors’ concern about convictability creates a ‘downstream orientation’ in prosecutorial decision making—that is, an anticipation and consideration of how others will interpret and respond to a case” (Frohmann, 1997).
Sentencing or charging disparity may be attributed to the gender of the judge. A female judge may be more likely than a male judge to view sexual assault and other crimes, which disproportionately victimize women, as serious crimes that merit harsh punishment. Although the same judge may be lenient when imposing charges to drug traffickers, she understands the pain that women undergo when being sexual assaulted. They take into consideration the gravity of the offense committed, the extent of injury to the victim, and the guilt of the suspect. In addition, the case results are influenced by stereotypes about assault and its victims.
Unlike other cases, the prosecutors incriminate concealed motives to the suspects in order to ascertain the truth behind their conviction. The decision may differ from the other judges’ depending on the prosecutor’s understanding of the circumstances that led to the assault. Ascertaining the victim’s current circumstance, relationship with the suspect, and behavior at the time of the felony’s commitment depend on the prosecutor’s discretion. Other cases may not follow such long judgmental processes, as the information laid down by the victim and witnesses will prompt the judge to impose a decision on the case.
Moreover, difference in charging decisions may be attributed to the race of the suspect. Indeed, the racial composition of the suspect affects the prosecutor’s decision to charge, especially in sexual assault and homicide. Charging is more likely if the defendant is non-white or if the defendant is black and the victim is white (Kingsnorth, 1998). As such, Spohn concluded that their “unexpected findings” suggested that African American sexual assaults with weaker evidence are less likely to be screened out during the preliminary stages of the process. Police and prosecutors, in other words, may regard sexual assaults involving African American men and white women as inherently more serious than interracial sexual assaults. Consequently, they may be more willing to take a chance with reluctant victim or a victim whose behavior at the time of the incident was questionable.