Survivors of sexual assault can even be punished for the crimes committed against them. According to a Louisiana District Attorney, rape survivors who refuse to testify could face jail time.
In an interview with Morning Eyewitness News on April 13, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said, "If I have to put a victim of a crime in jail, for eight days, in order to... keep the rapist off of the street, for a period of years and to prevent him from raping or harming someone else, I'm going to do that."
Cannizzaro also explained that he does not understand why a victim would not wish to speak out about the crime committed against them.
"[If] steps have been taken to arrest that person, to indict him, to bring him to court and they say, 'I don't want to get involved,' in my opinion that is wrong," Cannizzaro said.
Cannizzaro's idea, while lacking humanity, is not unique. It comes from a Louisiana law which allows police to jail witnesses deemed to have valuable evidence until they testify or post bail. In instances of domestic abuse and sexual assault, the victims often have the material evidence most crucial to the case. Using material witness warrants, the DA's office reports jailing six victims for refusing to testify against their abusers.
Survivors of sexual assault do not come forward for many reasons, but studies find that fear of retaliation from their rapist, of being ostracized by their community, and general distrust of a system that has given them very little reason to feel safe is common.
Many survivors, after encountering aggressive, victim-blaming behavior from medical professionals and police, decide not to move forward with the legal process as an act of self-preservation.
"They've been abused by the system that's supposed to help them," Lynn Schafran, director of the National Judicial Education Program for Legal Momentum, told The Independent.
Cannizzaro's comments came only one day after a report released by Court Watch NOLA criticized the practice of jailing rape victims. Mary Claire Landry, head of the New Orleans Family Justice Center, told The Times-Picayune that placing the force of the legal system against survivors was counterproductive, at best.
There are "many other reasons why victims don't want to participate in the criminal justice system," she said. "Our preference is that the criminal justice system would respect that."
Advocates of sexual assault survivors said they are alarmed by Cannizzaro's views and are concerned that his disconnection from the realities of sexual assault and its impact on victims will dissuade more people from coming forward after being assaulted. Rape is already the most underreported crime in the U.S. with 63 percent of cases never making it to law enforcement. They are afraid it will also keep victims of domestic violence in life-threatening situations.
Dr. Natalie Stephens found over her years of work that rape victims were often leaving the hospital more traumatized than when they entered. Schafran said she has seen many survivors become more emotionally unstable after interacting with law enforcement.
"Very often what we find is that, when police interview victims, they’ve been trained in techniques that are applicable to how you elicit information from a suspect,” Schafran told The Independent. “When they interview victims, they interrogate them.”
Their findings, and Cannizzaro's statements, echo an unspoken truth for many victims of sexual assault — that the aftermath can sometimes be as violating as the rape itself.
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