Lawmakers took up one of the most vexing questions about campus sexual assaults on Tuesday: who is best suited to handle complaints and investigations—college administrators, or law enforcement?
The juxtaposition of two separate processes for handling allegations of sexual assault has grown into a “complicated thicket” that discourages survivors from reporting, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said in testimony before a subcommittee on crime and terrorism. “When you combine those two systems, it is confusing and complicated,” she said. For example, universities and law enforcement use different burdens of proof, and they’re trying to achieve different things: colleges must meet their obligations under Title IX to maintain a safe campus for all students, while the criminal-justice system enforces the law.
While the two systems aren’t functioning well together, neither serves survivors (or, arguably, the accused) well on their own, either. As Michelle Goldberg laid out in her June cover story, almost no one is satisfied with current campus adjudication processes. Some critics contend that dealing with complaints internally “trivializes a serious felony;” others worry that administrators are more concerned with their institutions’ reputation than with justice; finally, there are concerns that disciplinary boards do not adequately protect the accused’s right to due process.
On the other hand is the criminal-justice system, which some see as the solution to flawed internal systems for dealing with complaints. Sheldon Whitehouse, who chaired Tuesday’s hearing, said he was “concerned that law enforcement is being marginalized when it comes to the crime of campus sexual assault,” and that “victims will pay the price” if crimes aren’t reported to local police. The fact that most campus rapists are serial offenders is one reason why internal sanctions are insufficient. Even if a perpetrator is expelled, he may still pose a threat to women outside the university.
Unfortunately the criminal-justice system has not demonstrated that it’s any better at responding to sexual-assault victims. In fact, McCaskill argued, it’s been “very bad,” worse even than the military and college campuses, she claimed. One survey of several colleges in the Midwest, for example, found that of 171 police investigations of sexual violence on campus, only twelve ended with arrests, and only four in convictions. In her own testimony, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said that the “ultimate goal should be that 100 percent of survivors of campus assault feel comfortable and confident reporting to law enforcement,” but she noted that “the vast majority of police departments have responded to reports with victim blaming and belittlement, and as a result, survivors have lost trust in law enforcement.”