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Feds revising rape definition

Change considered more inclusive; state to see little change

– In early January, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced changes to the long-held legal federal definition of the word “rape.”

In a written statement issued when he announced the changes, Holder said he believes the new, more inclusive definition will provide a more accurate understanding of the scope and volume of these types of crimes.

Indiana’s laws that describe rape and other sexual assaults are still very gender- and act-specific. And while it is unlikely that a change in the federal definition will affect the way local police and prosecutors handle such cases, either in investigation or charging, it will likely cause the number of rapes reported to the FBI’s crime statistics program to jump.

Indiana’s definition

Indiana’s current rape statute requires sexual intercourse, and it must involve members of the opposite sex, Huntington County Prosecutor Amy Richison said.

“We recognize that there is a crime with members of the same sex when there is penetration, but we recognize that as criminal deviate conduct as opposed to rape,” she said.

When she has taken rape cases to trial, Richison said people on the juries commonly think of the crime of rape occurring between a man as perpetrator and a woman as a victim.

She is comfortable with the different designation – between rape and criminal deviate conduct – because the crimes are treated the same in terms of sentencing and severity.

“I’m OK with the labels given,” Richison said.

She said she would feel differently if the statutes resulted in disparate punishments.

“That would create a tremendous problem, obviously, and I as a prosecutor would struggle with that,” she said.

Richison and Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards said there have been discussions statewide about creating a general sexual assault statute. But so far that has been something only discussed.

In 2011, a bill was proposed in the Indiana Senate that would have repealed the criminal deviate conduct statute and merged it into the rape statute. It made it out of the Senate and got as far as the House Committee on Courts and Criminal Code.

“In a perfect world, we would do it that way,” Richards said on the state enacting a general sexual assault statute.

Regardless of how the federal government or the state labels sex crimes, Richards said the new federal definition will have no effect on how such cases are handled.

Since 1927, the definition, which is used by the FBI in statistical reporting of rape cases nationwide, has been “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”

The definition took into account none of the other forms of violent sexual assaults – such as the rape of men, penetration of the female sex organ or anus by objects or other body parts, rape of women by women and non-forcible rape, according to a release from the FBI.

The new definition is markedly different: The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.

Most of the time, police officers collect information in an investigation and then pass that information onto the prosecutor’s office for the filing of appropriate charges.

Only occasionally do officers suggest what charge may be the most appropriate, Richards said.

So prosecutors will continue to charge these cases – as either rape or criminal deviate conduct – depending on what charge best explains the crime.

But Richards said it’s good that the federal definition now more closely matches the language used in state statutes.

Crime reports

The Fort Wayne Police Department reports crime statistics to the FBI’s Universal Crime Reporting program – created in 1992 to collect reliable crime statistics for the nation.

The data come from nearly 17,000 law enforcement agencies around the country. In Indiana, communities that report include Fort Wayne, South Bend and Evansville – cities with populations over 100,000. Indianapolis does not report.

The crimes reported include murder, larceny, robbery, forcible rape, aggravated assault, property crime, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and arson, according to the FBI.

The data serve as a measure, albeit an incomplete one, of various communities, Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York said.

“It measures serious crimes that have an adverse effect on the quality of life,” he said. “You measure yourself. … I like to use it to gauge where we are at from year to year to year.”

He said the new rape definition will not take effect for the purpose of reporting until January 2013. When that occurs, he expects a jump in the number of rapes reported to the national database.

Fort Wayne police reported 94 rapes last year and 96 in 2010, according to the police department.

What is now labeled as criminal deviate conduct will then be labeled as rape, York said.

Such changes have occurred before, such as when Indiana included detached garages in its statute defining burglary of residences. For years, breaking into detached garages was considered thefts but about five years ago became burglaries, York said.

That caused the number of burglaries reported to the Universal Crime Reporting program to jump a bit, he said.

Same prosecution

It’s unlikely the change in definition will have much of an effect on the frequency of sex crimes reported to law enforcement.

Getting people to report that they have been the victims of sexual assault is still an issue and one not likely to be affected by merely changing the terms, Richison said.

“I do not think that changing the label of the crime is going to change the incidence of reporting,” she said. “Victims will still be concerned that no one is going to believe them, the embarrassment of having the sexual assault come to light. … Those hurdles don’t evaporate because you change the labels of sexual assault. It might make people feel better because we are being more politically correct, but in the end it is not going to affect how we’re going to prosecute crimes.”

But like Richison, Richards does not see the current situation as prohibitive in terms of getting people to report the crimes more frequently.

“The conduct, regardless of what you call it, is illegal,” Richards said. “We just call it something different.”