‘This has got to change’: In Utah, sexual assaults are poorly tracked and under prosecuted

Feb 22, 2022, 10:44 PM | Updated: Feb 7, 2023, 12:35 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – A few days after she turned 15, a Utah teenager says she was sexually assaulted. She didn’t tell her mother what happened until a year and a half later.

“When it happened to me, I just, I didn’t know what it was,” she said.

Because she is a minor, the KSL Investigators agreed to conceal both her and her mother’s identities.

She reported the assault to authorities in Utah County a year ago, in February 2021.

“In the beginning, I thought that something would happen,” she said. “I was really hopeful, you know, when I thought they were going to do some more investigating.”

But for nearly a year, they received no updates on the case.

“We haven’t heard anything,” the mother said during an interview in January. “I believe that it’s just been dropped.”

Her case is not unique. In Utah, just a fraction of reported sexual assaults are prosecuted, and the KSL Investigators have found poor tracking and reporting throughout the state’s criminal justice system makes it difficult to know the true scope of the problem.

‘This has got to change’

“I wish I could say, ‘Oh, that’s so unusual,’ but it’s not,” said Dr. Julie Valentine of the teen’s experience.

Valentine is a certified sexual assault examiner and BYU nursing professor at the forefront of sexual assault research in Utah.

She studied prosecution rates in both Salt Lake and Utah counties and found, between 2010 and 2018, only 10% of sexual assault cases in Utah County were successfully prosecuted. Only 11% were prosecuted in total.

The study only included adult cases in which a forensic sexual assault kit was collected. Valentine’s research did not capture cases in which reporting was delayed and there was no forensic evidence available.

“I can only imagine that that’s just a mere fraction of those cases that are reported that get prosecuted,” she said.

Dr. Julie Valentine

Valentine’s research revealed most cases died with law enforcement. In Utah County, she found 73% were not formally referred to prosecutors. The most common reason for law enforcement not to screen a case with prosecutors was “lack of evidence or unfounded.”

Valentine said her findings point to a system where women are not believed, even though numerous credible studies have shown false reports of sexual assaults are extremely rare.

“I’m a researcher,” she said. “I’ve read all the studies, and there have been a lot of studies about false reporting of rape cases. It happens, but it’s about 2-8%. That’s the same as other crimes.”

In Salt Lake County, Valentine’s research revealed that during 2012 through 2017, only 8% of sexual assault cases were prosecuted, and that was an improvement. Her previous review of sexual assault cases in Salt Lake County from 2003 to 2011 found only 6% of those cases were prosecuted.

“When I repeated this study, I thought that law enforcement would be screening more cases with the prosecutor’s office,” she said. “And I found that is not the case, that still law enforcement is only screening a third or less of these cases with fully collected sexual assault kits with the prosecutor’s office. The reason we had an increase in prosecution for Salt Lake County, is because the Salt Lake DA’s Office is prosecuting more of the cases that do get screened.”

In Salt Lake County, 65% of sexual assault cases were not formally screened with the prosecutor’s office from 2012 to 2017. That’s marginally down from 66% when Valentine conducted the initial study.

Valentine believes the data underscores a system susceptible to gender bias and a pervasive myth that there are high rates of false reporting when it comes to sexual assault.

“I really believe that if most of the victims of rapes were White, middle-class men, we would be prosecuting a lot more than 8% of these cases,” she said.

Prosecution rates across the state

The KSL Investigators filed public records requests with the office of the top prosecutor in each of Utah’s 10 most populated counties seeking the number of rape cases law enforcement referred to them during a five-year period, the number of cases prosecuted and the outcome of those cases.

We found some aren’t tracking sexual assault prosecutions at all, and among those that are, the data is mismatched and lacking uniformity.

The county attorney’s offices in Washington, Davis and Summit counties did not provide any data in response to KSL’s records requests.

Officials in Box Elder and Weber counties provided some information on sexual assault cases prosecuted but did not provide the number of cases they received from law enforcement.

The Iron County prosecutor’s office only provided data from 2019 on.

Cache, Utah, Salt Lake and Tooele Counties provided the requested data for November 2016 through October 2021, allowing the KSL Investigators to determine what percentage of cases referred by law enforcement were prosecuted.

Cache County’s data indicates a 100% prosecution rate. Officials reported during the five-year time frame, law enforcement referred 82 rape cases for prosecution, and prosecutors filed charges for all of them. Of those cases, five resulted in guilty verdicts at trial and 11 were resolved by plea deals.

The Utah County Attorney’s Office reported 171 cases submitted by law enforcement, with 75 (44%) leading to prosecution.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office provided data showing a prosecution rate of 26%, citing “evidence problems” as the most common reason for declining to prosecute cases screened with law enforcement. Of the 1,613 cases screened, 452 were prosecuted. Of those, only 17 (4%) went to trial and 12 of those trials ended in an acquittal, while 43% of the cases prosecuted have resulted in a plea bargain.

The prosecutor’s office in Tooele County provided data showing 75 cases referred by law enforcement, with charges filed in 15 (20%) of those cases. Seven cases have been resolved by plea deal, and none have gone to trial.

There was not a feasible way to determine how many cases law enforcement agencies did not refer for prosecution in each of the 10 counties.

‘This should be public record’

The difficulty KSL experienced in obtaining comparable data from agencies across the state underlines what Valentine sees as a core issue – Utah law does not require uniform reporting and tracking of the criminal justice system’s response to sexual assault.

“I should not need to be an outside researcher to get these numbers,” she said. “This should be public record, right? Every law enforcement agency should report how many rape cases that they had – and all of them, not just the ones that they think this is a real rape, all of the rape cases that were reported to them – and then how many they screened, and the prosecutor should do the same thing.”

Valentine pushed for the legislation that forced the state to finally test a backlog of shelved sexual assault kits but says there is no legislation to mandate reporting and tracking of the prosecution rate of sexual assault cases.

“That has never been introduced as legislation in Utah, but might be the great next step,” she said.

Change in Utah County

Utah County Sheriff’s Lt. Jason Randall said he would welcome the availability of more data.

“We can’t fix a problem if we don’t know exactly where the problem is,” he said.

Utah County Sheriff’s Lt. Jason Randall.

Randall, who directly supervised the department’s special victim’s unit for eight years, said the revelations from Valentine’s research have led to changes in Utah County.

Some cases that were not formally screened were still brought to the attention of prosecutors, Randall explained. He described an informal, verbal screening process where officers would call a prosecutor to discuss a case and note the outcome of the call in the file.

But Valentine’s research found that those informal screenings did not lead to prosecution.

The department’s internal system has since changed, making it easier to send cases to the Utah County Attorney’s Office for review, Randall said. He believes more cases are now being screened as a result and said informal screenings over the phone are no longer happening.

“[Victims] are trusting us as they’re coming forward and they’re literally putting their whole story in our hands,” he said. “We have to do better.”

But he pushes back on the notion that victims are not believed when they report sexual assault in Utah County.

“For us, it’s not about what we believe,” he said. “It’s about what we can prove.”

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt.

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said his office has also made changes prompted by Valentine’s research.

“We set up a special code in the database for sexual assault allegations so that we could track it from the county attorney’s end,” he said. “And so that we know, by looking at a report, where sexual assault reports have taken place, and then we can go back to the police agency and say, ‘What about this case? What about that case?’ and so that they just don’t die at the police station.”

Leavitt said he would support uniform data reporting standards for prosecutors in Utah, and he allowed Valentine access to his case files for the study because he believes prosecutors need to be more accountable.

“There are very few things in government less transparent than prosecutors’ offices,” he said. “And the statistics and the data that is kept in criminal justice is atrocious. It, I mean, how in the world we, in the 21st century, have gotten to a criminal justice system that has no broad statistics on anything of a specific nature is borderline criminal.”

Case reopened

Nearly a year after she reported she was sexually assaulted in Utah County, the teen who agreed to speak with KSL under the condition of anonymity tearfully shared the profound impact the experience has had on her life.

“I just don’t feel safe,” she said.

As time dragged on with no updates on the case, she went to therapy, day treatment and has even spent time hospitalized.

“I just wanted to scream, like, ‘Who’s going to help my daughter? Who’s going to help her?’” the mother said.

She called KSL after feeling they’d been left in the dark, so the KSL Investigators set out to understand where in the system the case stalled.

“We did our investigation and then sent it over to the County Attorney’s Office for them to review that case,” said Lt. Randall.

The case was submitted to prosecutors on April 27, 2021, according to the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.

Five months later, on Oct. 7, an email KSL obtained through a public records request shows a prosecutor notified the detective on the case of a decision to decline to prosecute – a delay in screening and issuing a charging decision that Leavitt called “unacceptable.”

“If at any time more cooperating evidence comes [forth] please feel free to resubmit this case,” the email stated.

Leavitt said the case was handled improperly, between both agencies.

“The case languished because a box on the computer wasn’t checked to notify the victim coordinator to say, ‘Now call the victim and give them the status of this case,’” Leavitt explained.

The case has been reopened since the KSL Investigators started asking questions.

Leavitt said it will receive a fresh look and a new investigation.

When asked if it’s likely there are other victims who might have had a similar experience with their case but did not contact journalists for help, Leavitt replied, “Absolutely.”

A message to victims and survivors of sexual violence

The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice has estimated only 11.8% of women report sexual assault to law enforcement. And in Utah, rape is recorded at higher rates than the national average.

Valentine urged victims of sexual assault to continue to report to law enforcement and seek services available to them.

“You report because it’s a health issue and we want to provide services,” she said. “And we need victims to come forward and to provide their voice so that we can make these changes.”

Valentine believes the state of Utah must do more to prosecute sexual assault cases and support victims through the process.

“It goes back to, ‘What can we do to support victims and coming forward?’ And one of those things is to believe them,” she said. “And then the other is to improve our criminal justice system response.”

If you have experienced sexual violence, you can access help and resources by calling Utah’s 24-hour Sexual Violence Helpline at 1-888-421-1100. You can also call the Rape Recovery Center Crisis Line at 801-467-7273 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 for free, confidential counseling.

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‘This has got to change’: In Utah, sexual assaults are poorly tracked and under prosecuted