Cook County prosecutors seldom file felony charges against students accused of sexual violence on college campuses, according to a published report Sunday.
The Chicago Tribune analyzed 16 Chicago-area colleges where police investigated 109 reported sex crimes since 2005. Of those, 12 resulted in arrests and five in convictions. In several cases, the newspaper found that what appeared to be felony rape cases were downgraded to misdemeanors.
That included a Chicago State University case where campus authorities said an 18-year-old freshmen reported being attacked by another student in a dorm room in 2010. University police Chief Ronnie Watson believed it was a clear felony rape case, but prosecutors suggested a less serious misdemeanor battery case.
"The (assistant) state's attorney came, and she was as cold as ice — she wouldn't budge," Watson told the Tribune. "It's horrible that we couldn't get a rape charge, but I'm glad we got something."
Advocates for victims say downgrading sex offenses is insulting to victims.
"A misdemeanor battery is the same charge you'd get if you punched someone in the face," said Sharmili Majmudar, executive director of Chicago-based Rape Victim Advocates. "To have any kind of conviction is something positive, I can't deny that. But it's such a qualified success. We'd like to see more felony charges."
The newspaper focused on Cook County, selecting public and private four-year colleges with campus housing. The survey collected information from law enforcement and crime data that schools have to report under federal law. The data didn't include cases of students living off campus.
A spokeswoman for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez defended the office's handling of the cases, saying prosecutors carefully review them. In September, the office began looking closer at misdemeanors to see if they should be upgraded to felonies.
"Generally speaking, we cannot approve felony charges unless we are confident that we can sustain our burden of proof," said Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly. "Factors that may prevent us from meeting our burden of proof and prevent us from approving felony charges include cases where there is little or no corroboration to the accounts of the complaining witness or inconsistencies in the accounts provided by the complaining witness."