Violation of Trust

When numbers lie: Illinois crime stats don’t tell the whole story on sex cases

A 10-year-old girl wrote to her stepfather in prison and asked her mother to read the letter first. The mother contacted Cairo, Ill., police after she read the postscript, “I hope you come home soon and I wish you would stop molesting me.”

In Lawrenceville, Ill., police investigated a case where a suspect accused of improperly touching his elementary school-aged son told an investigator that he was a registered sex offender who was convicted of sexually assaulting a 6-year-old girl. He agreed to take a polygraph but changed his mind the next day.

Fairview Heights police investigated a case in which a 14-year-old girl told her mother and detectives that her father ordered her to remove her clothing, whipped her with a leather belt and used his hands to examine her genitals because he suspected she had been having intercourse with a boyfriend. Depression caused the girl to repeatedly cut herself, according to a police report.

Police investigated each of these allegations as a case of felony sexual abuse. Because of the age of the victims and a typical lack of witnesses, these are among the most difficult crimes to bring to court. None of these three suspects was prosecuted.

The public rarely hears about these types of cases. That’s because felony sexual abuse is not counted by the oldest and most extensive crime data system in the United States — the Uniform Crime Reporting program.

The FBI oversees this voluntary program, which is administered in Illinois by the State Police. The FBI collects crime data from about 18,000 local police departments across the United States and publishes the totals annually, broken down by city, county and state. The only sex crime tallied is criminal sexual assault, or rape.

Thousands of felony sexual abuse cases, which often involve children as victims, are not reflected in the crime data totals because these crimes are not counted.

A Belleville News-Democrat investigation showed that from 2005-13, at least 1,712 complaints of felony sexual abuse were reported to police in 32 Southern Illinois counties, or about one in four of all felony sex crimes.

The data was difficult to gather because some police departments do not differentiate between misdemeanor sexual abuse and felony sexual abuse in their record keeping.

Generally, felony sexual abuse, also known as aggravated criminal sexual abuse, involves unwanted sexual contact not involving penetration where the victim is a minor, or where a weapon or threat of violence is a part of the crime. Rape, or criminal sexual assault, involves unwanted or illegal sexual penetration in any fashion.

Why aren’t criminal sexual abuse cases, also referred to as sexual molestation, tracked in the Uniform Crime Report? The FBI won’t say.

Bureau spokesman Stephen G. Fischer Jr., who would answer only in writing, responded to that question by supplying a description of the crime data program’s rape collection rules. He wrote, “Prosecution statistics are not collected by the FBI UCR program,” without saying why felony sexual abuse is not tracked.

The UCR system also is flawed in what it does report, the BND discovered, publishing misleading data over time based on a changing definition for rape.

For example, the number of rapes reported by police in Madison County to the UCR program in 2010 plummeted by more than 50 percent, compared with the average for the previous five years. The same thing happened the next three years. During this four-year period, 2010-13, police in the county reported 344 fewer rapes when compared with the average for the previous five years. The average dropped from 173 to 83.

In St. Clair County, police reported 92 fewer rapes to the UCR, a 12 percent drop.

But local police chiefs said they knew that neighborhoods didn’t suddenly become safer or that there were fewer rapes. The drop-off was on paper and due to a much narrower FBI definition of rape, one that stated it was a crime involving a man against a woman and inserted the word “forcible” into the definition. That kept some departments from reporting crimes they previously would have counted as rapes.

Women’s groups complained that all rapes are forcible in some way, and the FBI amended its definition once again last year.

Criminologists who deal with the Uniform Crime Reporting program said the information it collects can be unreliable for research purposes.

“You cannot rely on the UCR data. It’s like building a house on a rotten foundation. The whole thing caves in,” said Eli Silverman, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

The BND’s investigation showed that in 18 Southern Illinois counties, including Madison and St. Clair, police reported 992 fewer rapes compared with the previous five-year average after the FBI changed its definition of rape. There was no significant decline in the other 14 counties. That’s 20 percent of the 5,032 rapes reported to police in a 32-county region of Southern Illinois from 2005-13.

“It was predictable that the number of offenses in the (new definition) of forcible rape category would be fewer,” than what had been previously reported, said Terri Hickman, who runs the UCR program for the Illinois State Police.

“Not all criminal sexual assault offenses that occurred in these reporting years met the (amended) definition and were correctly excluded from reporting,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department “unfounded” 144 of 344, or 42 percent, of felony sex crimes from 2007-13. The department did not keep computerized crime data records prior to 2007. Unfounding is supposed to occur only when police are able to prove that the sex crime report was false. The department’s unfounding rate far exceeds national estimates of 2-8 percent for false reporting published by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Former Madison County Sheriff Robert Hertz, who left office Dec. 1, said he stood by the decisions of his sex crime investigators when they listed a sex case as “unfounded,” meaning it does not have to be reported to the UCR program.

“I have confidence in my staff,” he said prior to leaving office. “If we don’t have the evidence, then we don’t send it to prosecutors.”

Hertz said if a victim fails to cooperate, his officers will unfound a sex crime.

This practice does not comply with the UCR program’s regulations as described by Hickman. “Only if the victim recants or the agency’s investigation identifies that the offense did not occur is the incident determined to be unfounded,” she said. “A forcible rape incident in which the victim later becomes uncooperative does not equate to determining the offense as unfounded.”

Responding to Hickman’s comments, Hertz said, “Victims have to work with law enforcement to move an allegation into a charged crime offense.”

Another flaw in the UCR program is that it reports raw numbers of crimes but gives no indication what happens after that. In St. Clair County, the UCR program listed more than 412 arrests for rape from 2005-13. The BND’s investigation found that of that number, only 289 adult and juvenile prosecutions resulted.

James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston, said it’s unlikely that the program could be modified to track how many of these crimes are solved and inform the public of the high percentage of felony sex crimes that are not prosecuted.

The BND’s investigation shows that 70 percent of felony sex crimes reported to police in Southern Illinois from 2005-13 were not prosecuted. This data came from court records obtained through visits to 32 county circuit clerk offices, information that is not collected by the Uniform Crime Reporting program.

Fox said that under the rules of the program, “Anything that involves decision-making by the criminal justice system, whether it be the prosecutor or whatever, would not make for a good measure of crime.” He said the UCR is intended to simply be a measure of crime and not much else.

“They’re looking for a barometer of crime, and if it involved the decisions of prosecutors, then you’re mixing apples and apple sauce,” he said.

Fox said the UCR is set up to solely get numbers through police departments. If prosecutions were tracked, “then where does it stop? Do we also track convictions and sentences?”

Kevin Cannon, a professor of criminology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, who specializes in methods of crime data research, said the way the Uniform Crime Reporting program operates, it could not readily be transformed into a vehicle that could track felony sex crime prosecutions by county.

“This information would have to be gathered by contacting every local prosecutor,” he said. “It would be a more difficult figure to keep track of.”

John A. Eterno, director of the Criminal Justice Program at Molloy College on Long Island, N.Y., and a former captain with the New York City Police Department, said tracking prosecutions would be a good idea, but the Uniform Crime Reporting program shouldn’t do it. He said the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the crime research arm of the Department of Justice, would be a better choice.

Eterno said a high rate of failure to prosecute felony sex crimes can occur without the public knowing about it because police and prosecutors “Don’t talk to each other. They stay in their own little worlds and they don’t care.”

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