Falling conviction rates driven by ill-trained, understaffed police — and toxic social attitudes

In 1953, the authors of India's first-ever crime survey presented a grim picture of the state of the new country's police forces.

“There has been,” authors of Crime in India reported, “no improvement in the methods of investigation or in the application of science to this work. No facilities exist in any of the rural police stations and even in most of the urban police stations for scientific investigation.”

How dangerous is your city? (PDF)

From the National Crime Records Bureau's statistical databases, we know this: there are more and more women approaching police with complaints about sexual assault, but ever-fewer victims getting justice.

Little justice for rape victims (PDF)

In 1973, the NCRB first published data on rape: 2,919 rape cases were registered at police stations across India that year. By 2010 the figure grew to 20,262. The numbers of prosecutions ending in conviction, though, have steadily declined.

India's rape crisis in 2010 (PDF)

The reason is simple: in the six decades since Crime in India first appeared, the capacities of police to investigative crimes have incrementally diminished —and the social attitudes, that deem rape a crime not worthy of devoting more resources to, haven't changed.

Poor investigation means no justice

Evidence that investigative incompetence is leading to diminishing conviction rates across the board isn't hard to come by: convictions for murder, for example, also showed a steady decline from 44.28% in 1973 to 36.73% in 2010.

Lawyers say the reason for the relatively high conviction rates for crimes like murder or housebreaking is that witnesses can be found — or, sometimes, invented by investigators. “The whole investigation system now revolves around a witness,” says New Delhi-based lawyer Rebecca John. “In crimes like rape, there usually isn't one.”

For over five decades now, the Supreme Court has held that the testimony of rape victims doesn't have to be corroborated, for example by forensic evidence, for a conviction to be won. That does not, however, appear to have pushed up the victim's chances of getting justice.

“Let's put it this way,” says a senior New Delhi-based police officer, “it doesn't take a lot for a perpetrator to create reasonable doubt — say, an unethical lawyer and a couple of friends willing to lie about his whereabouts.”

Hard-nosed investigation would minimise this kind of fraud — but there just aren't enough resources. India needs 250 police personnel per 100,000 citizens, twice the 133 per 100,000 available in 2010. Figures released by the Ministry of Home Affairs suggest upwards of 500,000 personnel have been recruited in recent months, but the infrastructure to train them in investigation doesn't exist.

The authors of the 1953 report had, in similar circumstances, warned that “large-scale recruitment in all the ranks of the police has diluted quality to a great extent, and consequently, the standard of work has fallen.”

“I think you have to accept,” says the former Andhra Pradesh Director-General of Police HG Dora, one of India's most respected policing experts, “that the police is stretched to breaking point.”

Figures show victims of sexual crimes understand this ugly fact. From 1973 to 1983, rape complaints doubled — and then slowly plateaued out, growing at levels close to the increase of the population. Even in western countries where the social stigma associated with filing a complaint is relatively low, many victims choose suffering in silence over suffering in a court. In 1991, a United States survey placed the reporting rate for rape at 55%; a similar Canadian investigation in 1985 placed the figure at 38%.

In 2000, a national survey in the United Kingdom concluded that 4.9% of all women had experienced at least one rape or sexual assault. In Ireland, Sweden and Germany, separate studies suggested that far higher numbers of women had been attacked, ranging from 25% to 34%.

No similar nationwide survey data is available in India, though a 2007 government study found that 53% of children polled reported having experienced “one or more forms of sexual abuse.”

The NCRB figures also show one important reason why victims have an incentive to remain silent: the rapists are mainly friends, even kin. Even though the media overwhelmingly reports on dramatic cases involving attacks by strangers, all but four States reported that nine out of 10 alleged perpetrators or more were known to the victim. In Delhi, that figure was 96.6%.

Protracted ‘acquaintance rape' trials allow for pressure to be brought to bear on victims or material witnesses to withdraw their testimony. In 2010, the numbers of alleged perpetrators either in custody or out on bail awaiting trial had grown to a staggering 89,707, up from 4,991 in 1973 — numbers which point to endless courtroom delays.

The north-east exception

Fixing policing and fast-tracking trials, though, might not alone be enough to influence outcomes. The NCRB data shows that the status of women in society may influence outcomes just as much as policing. The highest conviction rates were recorded by a cluster of States in the north-east, where data on literacy, nutrition and gender ratios all suggest women have a relatively high social status.

Nagaland convicted 73.7% of alleged perpetrators, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim both 66.7% and Meghalaya 44.4%. Mizoram, which convicted a staggering 96.6 percent of alleged perpetrators, also had the highest level of rape reported to police — 9.1 per 100,000 residents. This suggests that community pressure on the criminal justice system forces it to take rape seriously.

Some believe that better laws could help address these problems — but the evidence isn't persuasive. In a 1992 critique of Canadian rape-law reforms, criminologists Julian Roberts and Robert Gebotys found they had simply “attract[ed] more victims into the system, rather than changing the way that the system functions.”

Susan Estrich, writing in the Yale Law Review in 1986, noted that “studies within particular jurisdictions suggest limited, if any, changes in the processing of rape cases in the aftermath of major law enactments.”

India's problems aren't unique: in the United Kingdom, the government has been working to reverse an appalling conviction rate of 5.7 per cent, measured against complaints, and 33 per cent, when measured, as in India, against cases brought to trial.

The fact is, though, that much of the world has the tools, and the intent, needed to address the problem. In India, there is little so far but debate.

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