Sexual Assault

Published 04 Jan 2017

The idea that sexual assault is treated with less severity than other violent crimes has been drawing attention sense the 1960’s. This study addresses the question of whether sexual assault offenders were treated differently than other violent offenders. The authors were also trying to discover what affect race had on the decisions made by the criminal justice system. Overall they found that minorities are generally treated less harshly for sexual assault than whites, but they also found that for other violent crimes such as murder, robbery and assault minorities faced more stringent penalties.

The authors chose to do this research because they were concerned with the idea that sexual assault was not treated with the appropriate level of severity. Previous research had been pided into two schools of thought; the consensus theorist and the conflict theorists. The consensus theorists assumed that the law was a neutral body and that it applies to all equally. Hunt (1980) says that most people in society agree with what is and what is not a crime and further they believe that crime occurs regardless of offender’s social, economic, or racial background.

One of the other studies represented in this article was that of the conflict theorist R. Quinney (1970). He believed that crime is defined by the upper classes and is not agreed upon by the general population. He presented the idea that the criminal justice system protects and maintains distinctions between the class and races. His research though, found enough contradictions that it cast doubt on the validity of his study.

Lotz and Hewitt (1997) attempted to break away from the two classical fields of thought. They developed five models which he used to analyze how legal and extra legal information affects the decisions of the criminal justice system. His models represented different schools of thought like the consensus and conflict theories as well as a mix of both. His models showed that there are some factors like race and age that affected how people were treated.

Polk (1985) wanted to know if it was only in cases of sexual assault that minorities were treated differently or if it was that all crimes were treated harsher if the offender was black. He found that sexual assault was treated with more severity than robbery and assault but less than murder. Bullock (1961) had also found that African Americans received shorter sentences for sexual assaults than Whites, but longer sentences for murder and assault. LaFree’s (1980) study showed that African Americans who attacked white people served longer sentences then those whose victims were white.

When the authors set about this project they noted the lack of comparison between sexual assault cases and other violent crimes. They also were aware that the sample size used was usually too small. Many of the studies only examined one jurisdiction. Many of the other studies also only looked at sentencing outcomes as the measure of the criminal justice system. The authors decided to instead look at five different stages of the criminal processing system. They looked at 56,781 felony offenders from some of the most populated urban areas in the United States. From those felons they chose males whose race was known and who had been charged with murder, attempted murder, sexual assault, robbery and assault.

This study had five dependent variables; was there pre-trial release, was the arrest charge maintained, what was the case outcome, what was the type of sentence they were given and how long they were incarcerated for. They used the National Pre-Trial Reporting Program (NPRP) to obtain the data for the felons they used. The independent variables they controlled for were the year of the arrest, the type of crime committed, how many crimes the felon had been part of in the past, whether the offender was on a pre-trial release at the time he committed the offense and what was the ethnicity and ages of the offender. They ran their data through a logistical regression to measure the outcome.

Their results showed that there were biases in the criminal justice system. The results agreed with the research done by Lotz’s and Hewitt’s (1997). One of the models presented by Lotz and Hewitt that said that class and racial status does come into the criminal justice system on multiple levels this was confirmed by the data presented here.

This study found that sexual assault offenders were more likely to be White than African American and Whites were treated harsher than other minority groups. Sexual assault offenders also had a 74 percent chance of not obtaining a pre-trial release. The criminal history was also less for sexual offenders compared to murders, robbers and regular assault offenders. The age of sexual culprits was much higher than for perpetrators of other violent crimes. They found that murderers were given the longest sentences, followed by sexual offenders and robbers. Most sexual offenders were sentenced to around 7.9 years compared to 187 months for murder. Sexual offenders did serve more time than either robbers or people charged with regular assault.

In terms of race Hispanics and Asians were less likely to be thrown in jail than Whites and African Americans for violent crimes. They found that African Americans and Hispanics were less likely than Whites to be found guilty for sexual assaults. Conversely Hispanics and African Americans, the minority groups, were more likely to be convicted of the other violent crimes. They found that race also played a role in whether people were granted pre-trial release. Asians and Hispanics were less likely to be detained than Whites and African Americans who had similar chances of being detained. They also noticed that those people who were convicted for sexual assault victimized people of their own race more than others. Out of the African American rapists who were incarcerated, they discovered that most had hurt white women.

These results suggested to the authors that minority women are less valued than White women. Because of this they feel that changes need to take place within the system. Desensitization to ethnicity should come to the fore front of training programs within the criminal justice system. It appears that not enough care is given to making sure that victims are treated equally when it comes to punishing their offenders. Without a change in the system a message is being sent that minority victims are not worth as much as their White counterparts; this cannot continue.

More research seems needed before the hypothesis that the criminal justice system is devaluing minority victims can be verified, but this study does bring to light many interesting ideas. There also should be a standard set of guidelines for what type of crimes allow pre-trial release because this study showed that many of the offenders were out on pre-trial release for similar crimes. Overall this paper presented the data necessary to give conflict theories validity and shows that investigation is needed to determine the causes of the discrepancies between the races in regards to sexual assault.


  • Reviewed Article: Maxwell, Christopher, Post, Lori, Robinson, Amanda, 2003. “The impact of race on the adjudication of sexual assault and other violent crimes.” Journal of Criminal Justice 31: 523-538. Available at Science Direct. Com. Retrieved on April 3, 2006 from
  • Bullock, l. M., 1961. “Significance of the racial factor in the length of prison sentence.” Journal of Criminal Law Criminology, and Police Science, 52: 411-417.
  • Hunt, A., 1980. “The radical critique of law: An assessment.” International Journal of the Sociology of Law, 8: 33-46.
  • LaFree, G.D., 1980. “The effect of sexual stratification by race on official reactions to rape.” Social Problems, 28: 582-594.
  • Lotz, R. and Hewitt, J.D., 1997. “The influence of legally irrelevant factors on felony sentencing.” Sociological Inquiry, 47: 39-48.
  • Polk, K., 1985. “Rape reform and criminal justice processing.” Crime and Delinquency, 31: 191-205.
  • Quinney, R., 1970. The social reality of crime. Boston: Little and Brown.
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