There was a small notice in recent News-Democrat editions about our Violation of Trust series on sexual felony prosecutions being honored with the 2016 John Jay College/H.F. Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Reporting Award.
Reporters Beth Hundsdorfer and George Pawlaczyk and visual journalist Zia Nizami are receiving the award. For Pawlaczyk and Hundsdorfer, it is their second John Jay award, making them the first journalists ever to repeat.
While we are proud of their efforts, the more important point is that the award represents national recognition that Southern Illinois has a serious problem. Violation of Trust revealed for the first time that seven in 10 sexual felonies never made it to a courtroom. Considering it is estimated that only 10 percent of sex crime victims choose to report their attack to police, failure to prosecute the attackers is even more egregious.
Nearly a year has passed since the series was published. Some progress has been made in addressing the failure to help these victims, who repeatedly were brave and strong enough to tell us their stories with their names and images attached.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced a task force to look at the problem. She also pushed for more money so state crime labs could process sex crime evidence.
From 2005 to 2013, St. Clair County failed to prosecute 82 percent of the sexual felonies. To his credit, St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly took on the problem and obtained a federal grant allowing him to add specialized prosecutors and build a social service network to also handle domestic violence.
Most of the county prosecutors were oblivious to their failure to handle sex crimes until the reporters showed them the numbers culled by plowing through records in each of the 32 counties south of Interstate 70. If your child goes to school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, that county failed to prosecute 87 percent of the sex felonies, and prosecutors showed little interest in fixing the problem.
So the challenge remains. And that is why news organizations must investigate, expose and ask why — then follow up to show whether those who are now aware of the problem are addressing the problem.
It is a grim reality that this honor grew from the misery of some neighbors, depravity of others and failure of well-intentioned leaders.