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The Provability Gap: Why sexual assault cases are so hard to prosecute in Austin

Monday, August 26, 2019 by Nadia Hamdan

Austin had the highest number of rapes reported in large Texas cities in 2017. The rate of reported rapes that year was also nearly 40 percent higher than U.S. cities of similar size.

The Travis County district attorney says law enforcement responded to more than 600 adult sexual assault allegations that year. Only one person was found guilty by a jury. And that case wasn’t from Austin.

Even though an overwhelming majority of these assaults – 496 – were reported to the Austin Police Department, none made it to trial in all of 2017. (This includes cases carried over from the year before.)

Community advocates have long argued the number of prosecutions for sexual assaults is too low, but it was only after a swell of critical news – from DNA lab closures to misclassified police reports to class-action lawsuits – that city leaders began to take a deeper look. More people are starting to question whether the criminal justice system is really set up to protect rape victims.

In an effort to provide some answers, the Austin City Council passed a resolution authorizing an independent review of how police investigate adult sexual assault cases from beginning to end, and more importantly, why so many of these crimes go unpunished.

“We all recognize that our system is not created to provide healing and justice to sexual assault survivors,” Council Member Alison Alter said. “This resolution (is to) help us get the information and the data we need as a Council to get to that deeper ‘why’ behind the problems we’re seeing so that we can create a system that is survivor-focused.”

KUT News spent the last few months speaking with more than a dozen people within the sphere of sexual assault, interviewing victims, advocates, detectives, prosecutors, lawyers and academics.

One thing was clear: Creating “a system that is survivor-focused” won’t be easy.

The Provability Gap episodes:

Find The Provability Gap on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast app.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Salvador Castro for KUT.

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