The news that the so-called “black cab rapist” John Worboys is to be released after just under 10 years in jail has put the criminal justice system and the way it deals with rape cases under scrutiny.
Worboys was convicted of one count of rape, five of sexual assault, and 10 of drugging. However police believe as many as 100 women may have been assaulted by Worboys. 85 women contacted police after Worboys’ conviction but no further charges were brought against him.
Worboys was given an “imprisonment for public protection” sentence (IPP). IPPs were introduced in 2003 in order to put, and keep, in prison people who were judged to be a danger to the public in cases where the sentencing system does not allow life sentences. People sentenced to an IPP are given a minimum sentence — Worboys’ was eight years, but the Parole Boards could keep people in prison indefinitely. Parole Boards hear evidence from prison staff and experts on the suitability of a prisoner for release. The Parole Board hearing for Worboys judged him to no longer be a risk to public safety. However, as Parole hearing proceedings are not released to the public, we will never know why they decided Worboys no longer posed a threat.
Questions are now being asked of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) about why more charges were not pursued. Was it seen as unnecessary because Worboys was already in jail? What about justice for those women who did not have their accusations pursued?
But the questions to be asked of the CPS in the Worboys case are much more complex than this.
Before Worboys was arrested, police had failed to properly investigate and make the links between complaints by 14 women about being “assaulted by a cab driver” over many years.
After the arrest, Harriet Harman, then Labour's Home Secretary, commissioned a review into the way police and prosecutors handle rape cases. At the time of the publication of the review we said:
“The review is worth reading because it shows how the ‘austerity regime’ is impeding the possibility of real progress in helping the victims of sexual violence.
“There is a consensus now (even in government!) that Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) help many more women and men, including those who would not otherwise seek help. More SARCs are needed but the government has no intention of providing them.
“Other ostensibly radical goals, both in the review and the government’s response to the review, are much less than they seem. The government says it favours a 'multi-agency' approach to tackling sex crime but this is next to useless if they are not prepared to provide extra cash to enable public agencies to work together.
“Recently the government has pushed the CPS into being more ‘generous’ in its prosecution of rape complaints — ‘believing the victim’ is the new watchword (yes, decades after feminists argued for this common sense approach). But neither lawyers nor police will do that if time, training and money are not put into developing a more appropriate, sensitive and holistic response from the moment people come forward to make a complaint.”
Seven further years of austerity have cut much deeper into budgets, and services that support rape survivors are struggling to survive, if they still exist.
The lack of prosecutions in the Worboys case is far from an anomaly. Only six per cent of rape complaints end with a court conviction. An attrition rate of 80% has remained largely unchanged for decades. Cases drop out of the system at the police investigation stage, while being considered by the CPS, and when being prepared for court. On top of that it is estimated that only 15% of rapes are reported, although there is speculation that this number may have risen in the last few years.
A knee-jerk “lock them up and throw away the key” response to Worboys’ release does not provide any real answers to the high attrition rate in rape investigations and prosecutions, to how to prevent sexual violence or deal with it when it occurs, or for how the criminal justice system could rehabilitate perpetrators.