Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Update on rape defendant anonymity

Last night there was an "adjournment debate" in the House of Commons on the proposals to grant suspected rapists anonymity.

[trigger warning]

Before we get to that:

  • There are now just under 1,600 signatures on the petition. Please sign it if you haven't yet done so.
  • There have been another nine signatures on Early Day Motion 105, including the first and so far only coalition member - Mike Hancock MP (Lib Dem, Portsmouth South) - and Green MP Caroline Lucas (Brighton Pavilion).

Earlier in the day, Lorely Burt MP (Lib Dem, Solihull) asked Nick Clegg MP (Deputy PM) about the proposals. His answer was fairly predictable, of course, and again hinted that they might drop or significantly cut back the proposal.

The adjournment debate itself was begun by Caroline Flint MP (Labour, Don Valley), who had earlier that day written this article for the Independent. Several other Labour MPs made statements in the debate.

Crispin Blunt MP (Conservative, Reigate) did the replying for the Government (and was the only person speaking in favour of the proposals during the debate). gorilerof3b and Sian at UKFeminista both have excellent analysis on why his arguments are incoherent.

The coalition as a whole seems to be having difficulty putting forward a consistent line on it, with the initial statement in Parliament by George Young MP, David Cameron MP's response at Prime Minister's Questions, and the two responses today not having much in common. I hope this suggests that even at a senior level in the government there's not that much enthusiasm for the idea and so more chance that we can get it dropped.

One of the areas in which Crispin Blunt MP suggests that there is not sufficient evidence (which it appears means "he has not tried hard enough to find evidence" rather than "there is no evidence") is in the prevalence of serial rapists. Here's the particular bit of his speech.

Lisak and Miller's paper on the subject provides fairly clear evidence on the subject - the majority of undetected rapists were serial rapists who had committed a mean of 5.8 rapes each. (And, of course, some of the non-serial rapists might well just not yet be serial rapists). He references other studies showing that the pattern for convicted rapists is similar.

Another piece of evidence for most rapists being serial rapists is the sheer numbers involved. Earlier, I roughly estimated the annual number of rapes as being around 210,000 based on British Crime Survey data. We know from the same sources that around 98% of rapists are men.

The British Crime Survey covers (it will be extended to younger people soon) ages 16-59. Let's assume that as the estimate above includes no victims outside that age range, it also includes no perpetrators. So, around 210,000 rapes a year are committed (and this figure is relatively stable over time). Over the lifetime between 16-59 of a person, therefore, around 9.2 million rapes will be committed. Let's round this down to 9 million to give a conservative estimate of how many of those were committed by men.

On 2009 figures (Flash, so accessibility may not be great, but the raw data is also available), there were just over 18 million men in that age range, a figure that is also not expected to have massive changes over time.

So, either Lisak and Miller are right, and the majority of rapes are committed by serial rapists, or Lisak and Miller are wrong (or right about the USA where this research takes place, but the UK is for some reason very different), the majority of rapes are committed by one-time rapists, and around half of the male population of the country either needs to spend a while in jail or will do soon. (Yes, using Lisak's figures and those of other studies we find that around 1 in 10 men are rapists, which is only marginally better than "1 in 2", and similarly impractical in its implications for the prison system).

I've sent the following message to the Ministry of Justice via the general enquiries email - general.queries@justice.gsi.gov.uk. I'm also sending a message with similar information to my own MP.

Dear Crispin Blunt MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice,

In the recent adjournment debate regarding Government proposals to give anonymity to rape defendants you said (HC Deb, 7 June 2010, c155) that:

[...] when I asked for evidence of how many rapists were serial offenders, and what proportion of convicted or charged rapists might fall into that category, there appeared to be insufficient data to form a reliable evidential picture

You may be interested to read the paper "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists" by Lisak and Miller published in 2002 in Violence and Victims (Vol 17. No. 1). If you do not have access to that journal, the paper is available online at http://www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/campus_assault/assets/pdf/Document5_Lisak_study.pdf

This paper answers this question - in summary, the average rapist has committed around 4 rapes, with the vast majority of rapes being committed by serial rapists. The findings have been replicated elsewhere, for example in the 2009 paper "Reports of Rape Reperpetration by Newly Enlisted Male Navy Personnel" by McWhorter, et al., published in Violence and Victims, Vol. 24, No. 2. You will also find several references in Lisak and Miller's paper to earlier papers which researched the prevalence of serial rape (again, very high) among convicted rapists.

There is some possibility that Lisak and Miller's findings in the USA would not be replicated in the UK, although the two countries have similar statistics on many other aspects of rape perpetration and detection, and approximate calculations based on British Crime Survey data and other studies on reported and unreported rape suggest that the figures for the UK are likely to be similar to those found by Lisak and Miller.

It would, however, be straightforward and inexpensive to carry out similar studies in the UK if you believed that there was likely to be a significant difference.

I remain concerned that these proposals have been brought forward at all, and been given a place in the Programme for Government that effectively forms the coalition's manifesto, if it is your opinion that there is not yet sufficient evidence regarding some of the crucial questions surrounding the proposal such as the prevalence of serial perpetrators. Would you be able to give a guarantee that no proposals to introduce anonymity for defendants will be brought forward until independent research has been carried out on these questions?

Yours sincerely,


...and to my MP

Dear Roberta Blackman-Woods MP,

Thank you for your recent letter on this subject, and for the work that you and your colleagues have been doing to oppose this idea, which appears from the contradictory statements made by various members of the government to be having an effect.

I read with interest the recent adjournment debate begun by your colleague Caroline Flint MP, and the responses by the government delivered by Crispin Blunt MP.

One of the statements that Mr Blunt made was that there is insufficient evidence on the prevalence of serial rapists, both in general and relating solely to convicted rapists. Since it is unlikely to be the first time this claim is made, if you have not already seen it, I would like to draw to your attention a paper by Lisak and Miller published in 2002 in the journal "Violence and Victims".

This paper, "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists", shows that the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by serial offenders, with the average offender committing around 4 rapes. It also contains numerous references to other papers on the subject, including two specifically looking at the behaviour of convicted rapists.

If you do not have access to the journal, this paper is available online at http://www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/campus_assault/assets/pdf/Document5_Lisak_study.pdf

While this paper describes research carried out in the USA, the UK has very similar levels of prevalence of rape in general, and so the burden of proof should be on the government, if it does not believe that Lisak and Miller's study and other similar studies are applicable to the UK, to fund similar independent research in this country before proceeding with any variation of its proposals.

Again, thank you for all the work that you and your colleagues have done so far on this issue.

Yours sincerely,