From arrest to conviction: Court outcomes of police-reported sexual assaults in Canada, 2009 to 2014

by Cristine Rotenberg

Release date: October 26, 2017

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Highlights

Criminal justice outcomes of sexual assault

  • Over a six‑year period between 2009 and 2014, sexual assault cases experienced attrition at all levels of the criminal justice system: an accused was identified in three in five (59%) sexual assault incidents reported by police; less than half (43%) of sexual assault incidents resulted in a charge being laid; of these, half (49%) proceeded to court; of which just over half (55%) led to a conviction; of which just over half (56%) were sentenced to custody.Note 
  • Overall, one in five (21%) sexual assaults reported by police led to a completed court case within the six‑year reference period. This is compared with nearly double the proportion (39%) of physical assaults.
  • About 1 in 10 (12%) sexual assaults reported by police led to a criminal conviction, and 7% resulted in a custody sentence. This is compared with 23% and 8%, respectively, for physical assaults.
  • Three in five (60%) sexual assault charges recommended by police were changed to another offence type once in court; most were changed to other types of sexual offences, physical assault, or administration of justice‑related offences.
  • When compared with physical assaults, sexual assaults were far more prone to dropping out of the justice system between police and court: while three‑quarters (75%) of physical assaults proceeded to court after being charged by police, only half (49%) of sexual assaults did.
  • Of incidents retained in the justice system, sexual assaults were marginally less likely than physical assaults to result in conviction (55% versus 59%), but if convicted, were far more likely to result in a custody sentence (56% versus 36%). It may be suggested that the small proportion of sexual assaults that proceed to court are among the most serious in nature or have the greatest likelihood of conviction based on available evidence, which may explain why conviction rates are similar and sentencing outcomes are harsher when compared with physical assaults.

Sexual assault justice outcomes by incident, accused, and victim characteristics

  • The more time that passed between the sexual assault and when it was reported to police, the less likely the charge was to proceed to court or result in a conviction. While over half (53%) of sexual assaults reported to police on the same day they took place proceeded from police charge to court, only one in five (19%) that were reported over one year after the crime took place went to court. Of cases that went to court, conviction rates were higher for sexual assaults that were reported to police on the day of the crime (56%) than for those reported over one year after they took place (43%). Similar gaps were observed among physical assaults, which suggests that delay in reporting may impact justice outcomes irrespective of the offence type.
  • Sexual assaults involving weapons were more likely than sexual assaults without a weapon to: result in charges laid (53% versus 45%), proceed to court (60% versus 49%), lead to conviction (55% versus 51%), or receive a custody sentence (60% versus 55%).
  • Victims sexually assaulted by someone they knew were far less likely than those victimized by a stranger to see their assailant go to court after a charge was laid (47% versus 64%). In cases where the accused was a member of the victim’s family, attrition was notably higher with only one in three (36%) charged incidents proceeding to court. However, for the minority that went to court, conviction and sentencing outcomes were among the harshest if the victim was related to their assailant.
  • Cases involving parents accused of sexual assaulting their child were among those most prone to dropping out of the justice system. Overall, about 1 in 10 (13%) sexual assaults of this nature that were reported by police led to conviction, compared with nearly three times this proportion (30%) for child sexual assaults perpetrated by someone who met the age‑based criteria for pedophilia and who was a stranger to the victim. This gap remained even after controlling for delay in reporting, which was more common among cases of sexual assault against children victimized by a family member.

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Sexual assault is a gendered violent crime prone to high levels of underreporting and low case retention in the Canadian criminal justice system.Note  The majority of victims of sexual assault are female, particularly young women and girls (Rotenberg 2017). As previous research has found, only a minority (5% (use with caution)) of sexual assaults in Canada are reported to the police (Conroy and Cotter 2017), a low reporting rate similar to those in other western countries (Kaufman 2008; Welch and Mason 2007). Nearly half of sexual assault victims who did not report the crime to police cited reasons related to the hassle, burden or belief that they would not see a positive outcome in the justice systemNote  (Conroy and Cotter 2017).

But of the sexual assaults that are reported to police, how many go to court and how many result in conviction? According to an analysis of crimes reported by police, between 2009 and 2014 there were 117,238 sexual assaults where the sexual assault was the most serious violation in the incident (see the “Definitions and key concepts” section). A charge was laid by police in less than half (41%) of these incidents (Rotenberg 2017). Over the same time period, the Canadian criminal court system saw 26,078 sexual assault court cases completed in adult or youth court, and just under half (45%) of these cases resulted in a guilty finding.Note  However, these court figures do not necessarily represent the same individuals charged by police over the same time frame, as police and court data are independent from each other and cases can take time to move through the court system.

While conviction rates (percentage of cases found guilty in court) and severity of sentencing outcomes are often used as measures of criminal justice, neither take into account the potentially large volume of cases that never made it to court. The ‘fall‑out’ of cases before court can provide vital context for how sexual assaults are handled in the criminal justice system. In order to address this knowledge gap, for the first time, this Juristat article uses linked data to determine what proportion of sexual assaults drop out between police and court.

Specifically, three independent, though related, measures of justice are explored: Part 1 explores the attrition of sexual assault cases, that is, the ‘drop‑off’ of cases out of the justice system between police and court; Part 2 presents conviction rates once in court; and Part 3 looks at the severity of sentencing outcomes for convicted cases, namely the percent sentenced to custody. Finally, Part 4 of this article explores to what extent selected incident, victim, and accused characteristics may be a factor in justice outcomes for sexual assault. Refer to Table 1, Table 2 and Table 3 for a detailed compilation of all three measures by selected characteristics.

This Juristat article examines justice outcomes of sexual assaults alongside physical assaults,Note  where applicable, in order to provide an analytical point of reference. Both sexual and physical assault are violent offences, and both have three levels of severity as per the Criminal Code of Canada, with similar sentencing penalties (see Text box 1). While the nature of sexual and physical assaults is unquestionably different in terms of the motive of the accused and experience of the victim, physical assault is the best suited comparable offence type within the context of this analysis. Existing justice research has used physical assault as a yardstick from which to compare findings for sexual assault with respect to non‑reporting, attrition and court outcomes (see Felson and Paré 2005; Thompson et al. 2007).

A preceding Juristat article (Rotenberg 2017) presented the scope of police‑reported sexual assaults in Canada in addition to a comprehensive profile of incident, victim, and accused characteristics. The present study should be considered in tandem with the findings of the previous article when considering a baseline profile for police‑reported sexual assaults in Canada.

Part 1: Attrition of sexual assault cases across the criminal justice system

Part 2: Conviction outcomes of sexual assaults that proceed to court

Part 3: Sentencing outcomes of convicted sexual assaults

Part 4: Sexual assault justice outcomes by incident, accused, and victim characteristics

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Text box 1
Definitions of sexual assault by level

Sexual assault (level 1) (s. 271 of the Criminal Code of Canada) is a hybrid offence that criminalizes assault of a sexual nature involving a violation of the sexual integrity of the victim.Note  The maximum penalties are 10 years imprisonment if prosecuted by indictment and 18 months if prosecuted by summary conviction. If the victim is under 16 years of age, mandatory minimum penalties of one year apply if prosecuted by indictment and 90 days if prosecuted by summary conviction. Level 1 sexual assaults accounted for the vast majority (98%) of all police‑reported sexual assaults in Canada between 2009 and 2014 (Rotenberg 2017).

Sexual assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm (level 2) (s. 272) is an indictable offence that criminalizes sexual assault involving a weapon, bodily harm or threats to cause bodily harm to a third party. The maximum penalty is 14 years imprisonment and mandatory minimum penalties apply, including a five‑year mandatory minimum penalty where the victim is under 16 years of age. Level 2 sexual assaults accounted for approximately 2% of police‑reported sexual assaults in Canada between 2009 and 2014 (Rotenberg 2017).

Aggravated sexual assault (level 3) (s. 273) is an indictable offence that criminalizes sexual assault involving wounding, maiming, disfiguring or endangering the life of the victim. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment. Mandatory minimum penalties apply, including a five‑year mandatory minimum penalty where the victim is under 16 years of age. Level 3 sexual assaults accounted for less than 1% of police‑reported sexual assaults in Canada between 2009 and 2014 (Rotenberg 2017).

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Part 1: Attrition of sexual assault cases across the criminal justice system

For most crimes in Canada, the number of alleged perpetrators typically far outweighs the number of people who are convicted and sentenced for their crimes. This phenomenon is referred to as ‘attrition’, where people who commit crime drop out of the criminal justice system at various stages, and for various reasons (Fitzgerald 2006; Johnson 2012; Lievore 2003). Attrition occurs in large part at the outset with unreported crime—that is, when a crime takes place but is not reported to police—thus never entering the criminal justice system. Attrition due to non‑reporting is higher for sexual assaults than any other violent offence, with only an estimated 5% (use with caution) reported to police (Conroy and Cotter 2017). Reasons for not reporting a sexual assault to police can range from the victim’s perception that the crime was not worth taking the time to report to feeling discouraged by the criminal justice system process (see Conroy and Cotter 2017).

Once brought to the attention of the police, incidents may be classified as ‘founded’ when through investigation, it is determined that a violation of the law took place. These incidents make up what is referred to within this analysis as ‘police‑reported crime’ and exclude incidents deemed by police as ‘unfounded’ (see Text box 2).

Attrition also occurs at the charging stage, where once a crime is deemed founded by police, it then either leads to an accused being charged, cleared otherwise, or the incident is not cleared (because no accused was identified in connection with the incident). After a charge is laid, the case may proceed to court for a ruling on the guilt of the accused. Cases that drop out between police charge and court are the focus of attrition in this study, as this was previously a gap in justice data. Crimes that had a charge laid but did not go to court are considered in this report to have dropped out of the criminal justice system, though not all of these cases are necessarily an indication of a negative justice outcome (see Text box 3).

In this report, ‘going to court’ is used as a simplified term for a criminal incident reported by police between 2009 and 2014 where a charge was laid and resulted in a case completed in court (i.e., a verdict was rendered) between 2009/2010 and 2014/2015. Due to the unavailability of data, cases that went to superior courts in certain provinces are not counted as having gone to court. This is estimated to account for at most 2% of sexual assaults and less than 1% of physical assaults. In addition, police‑reported sexual assaults in the latter years of study (e.g., 2013 and 2014) must have led to a court case that was completed by the end of 2014/2015 in order to be counted as having gone to court. Cases that were still in progress as of the end of 2014/2015 would not be counted as having gone to court since they had not yet been completed. As such, the threshold for ‘going to court’ is quite high and requires that an accused person completed the court process and that a final decision was rendered within the constraints of the reference period. This would exclude accused persons who went to court for a brief time without completing a formal case, such as for a preliminary inquiry that resulted in an interim decision. For more detailed information about what is counted in the linkage and its limitations, see the “Methodology: Record linkage” section at the end of this report.

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Text box 2
Unfounded sexual assaults

Police‑reported sexual assault data used in this article represent criminal incidents reported by police to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey where it was determined through investigation that a violation of the law took place. This excludes incidents reported to police that were deemed ‘unfounded.’ An incident is classified as unfounded if police investigation determined that the reported offence did not occur, nor was it attempted. At the time of writing this report (2017), since 2006, information on unfounded incidents has not been collected by Statistics Canada through the UCR, and unfounded incidents of sexual assault are not reflected in this article. Statistics Canada collected data on unfounded incidents beginning in 1962 with the introduction of the UCR. Over time, inconsistent reporting led to poor data quality. A review conducted in 2006 found that reporting of unfounded incidents was incomplete and Statistics Canada stopped publishing this information (Statistics Canada 2017).

In April 2017, the Police Information and Statistics Committee (POLIS) of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police recommended resuming the collection, analysis and dissemination of unfounded incidents, including sexual assault, by Statistics Canada (Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police 2017; Department of Justice Canada 2017). POLIS further recommended the adoption of a common approach to be taken by police services for the classification and reporting of unfounded incidents. As a result, Statistics Canada will provide standards and guidelines to police services to ensure standardized reporting of unfounded incidents to the UCR. The implementation of these changes will be phased in over time.

In July 2018, Statistics Canada will publish the first set of results on unfounded incidents for 2017, including sexual assault.

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Four in five sexual assaults reported by police did not end up in court

The attrition rate,Note  defined broadly as the proportion of criminal incidents that drop out of the criminal justice system, remains higher for sexual assault than for physical assault at all levels of the justice system with the exception of custody sentencing. Most (79%) sexual assaults reported by police (whether or not an accused was identified and whether they were charged or not) did not proceed to court within the six‑year reference period.Note  This means that for every five sexual assaults reported by police, one went to court while four did not. By comparison, two in every five physical assaults went to court (attrition rate of 61%). The full picture of attrition for sexual and physical assaults is presented in Figure 1 as a rate per 1,000 incidents to more clearly depict the differences in their respective attrition patterns.Note  Conviction and sentencing outcomes are discussed in greater detail in Part 2 and Part 3 of this article.

Figure 1 Attrition of criminal incidents from police to court, sexual assault versus physical assault, adjusted out of 1,000, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Figure 1
Data table for figure 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for figure 1 Out of every 1,000 police-reported sexual assaults and Out of every 1,000 police-reported physical assaults (appearing as column headers).
Out of every 1,000Data table Note 1 police‑reported sexual assaults Out of every 1,000Data table Note 1 police‑reported physical assaults
Incidents reported to police but not chargedData table Note 2 567 489
Charged, did not go to courtData table Note 3 221 126
Went to court but not convictedData table Note 4 95 159
Convicted, not sentenced to custodyData table Note 5 52 144
Convicted, sentenced to custodyData table Note 6 65 82

It is worth noting that at the police‑investigation level, sexual assaults were less likely than physical assaults to have an accused identified in connection with the incident (59% versus 75%).Note  However, of incidents where an accused was identified and thus a charge could be laid, a greater proportion of sexual assaults resulted in a charge being laid than physical assaults (74% versus 68%).

Moving forward through the justice system, a notable gap between sexual and physical assaults is the proportion of incidents that had a charge laid but did not proceed to court (Chart 1). Half (51%) of charged sexual assaults did not proceed to a court case that was completed during the six‑year reference period, compared with only one in four (25%) physical assaults that had dropped out. This suggests that relative to physical assaults, sexual assaults are at greatest risk of dropping out of the justice system between police charge and court. That being said, there are a number of reasons why criminal incidents may not proceed to court after being charged by police. These are explored in Text box 3.

Chart 1 Attrition gaps between sexual assault and physical assault incidents, by level of the criminal justice system, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Chart 1
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1. The information is grouped by Level of the criminal justice system (appearing as row headers), Sexual assault and Physical assault, calculated using attrition rate units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Level of the criminal justice system Sexual assault Physical assault
attrition rateData table Note 1
Reported by police but not chargedData table Note 2 57 49
Charged by police but did not go to courtData table Note 3 51 25
Went to court but not convictedData table Note 4 45 41
Convicted but sentenced to a penalty other than custodyData table Note 5 44 64

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Text box 3
Reasons why criminal incidents may not proceed to court

As noted above, many criminal incidents do not proceed to court because no accused was identified in connection with the crime. Further, when an accused is identified, charges are not always laid. This may be because there was insufficient evidence to lay a charge, or in incidents where the accused was a youth, they may have been dealt with by other measures (see Text box 5).

When a charge is laid by police, there are many additional reasons why a criminal offence does not make it to court, and not all of them signify a negative outcome or a failure of the justice system. Sometimes crimes do not go to court because the victim sought an alternative to the court process, such as restorative justice options for reconciliation, or other alternative measures that may have been deemed best suited by those involved given the circumstances (Cormier 2002; Daly 2006). Pre‑charge diversion programs may also be used to curb the number and types of cases proceeding to court, particularly for young offenders (see Text box 5). Victims may decline to proceed with charges against the accused at the police investigation stage, or if in court, victims may ask the Crown to withdraw the charges or decide they no longer wish to participate in the trial which may ultimately result in a dropped charge if the victim’s testimony was the main source of evidence (Spohn et al. 2001).

A criminally charged offence may also not make it to court because the Crown may decide that there is insufficient evidence to determine whether an accused is guilty. For example, in provinces where the Crown is responsible for laying criminal charges, police may recommend a charge but the Crown may deny it due to the absence of evidence required to satisfy the threshold for criminal convictions in Canadian courts—that is, that the evidence must be sufficient to find the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the Crown does not see this as a possibility, they may opt to decline the charge (Lonsway and Archaumbault 2012). The same attempt to filter out cases with low chances of conviction may occur at the police level for provinces where police are responsible for laying criminal charges.Note  This is not unique to Canada; internationally, prosecutors tend to limit the filing of sexual assault charges to cases with a perceived greater chance of conviction (Hohl and Stanko 2015; Lievore 2003; O’Neal et al. 2015).

Pre‑ and post‑charge screening may also be used to filter incidents recommended for charge by police before proceeding to court. Pre‑charge screening typically involves the Crown reviewing the charge recommended by police to determine its suitability to move forward (Public Prosecution Service of Canada 2014). This may include changing the offence type to be charged, often to a less serious offence, in order to gain a greater chance of securing a conviction. Pre‑charge screening takes place at the discretion of the Crown in British Columbia, Quebec and New‑Brunswick. In provinces without pre‑charge screening, police do not need Crown approval to charge an individual with a crime. In addition, post‑charge review is an ongoing process in which new information or evidence may come to light after a charge is laid that may enhance, or reduce, the Crown’s prospect of a conviction. This can result in a decision not to continue with a given charge.

Finally, some charges may appear to have not proceeded to court as a result of incomplete court data, standard methodological issues introduced during record linkage, or the limitations of the imposed reference period that would not count court cases completed after 2014/2015. Refer to the “Methodology: Record linkage” section at the end of this report for more on record linkage and its limitations.

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Another way to examine justice system outcomes of sexual assault is by looking at cases that are retained in the system. Retention is essentially the inverse of attrition, and represents cases that were carried forward in the criminal justice system process. Figure 2 presents cascading retention figures for police‑reported sexual and physical assault incidents at each respective stage of the criminal justice system.

Figure 2 Retention of criminal incidents in the criminal justice system, sexual assault versus physical assault, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Figure 2
Data table for Figure 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Figure 2 Sexual assault and Physical assault, calculated using number and percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Sexual assault Physical assault
number percent number percent
Incidents reported by police in CanadaData table Note 1 93,501 Note ...: not applicable 885,847 Note ...: not applicable
Incidents with a charge laidData table Note 2 40,490 43 452,745 51
Incidents that went to courtData table Note 3 19,806 49 341,101 75
Cases completed in courtData table Note 4 15,804 Note ...: not applicable 310,349 Note ...: not applicable
Guilty decisionsData table Note 5 8,742 55 182,056 59
Adult cases sentenced to custodyData table Note 6 3,846 56 57,955 36

Between 2009 and 2014, police reported 117,238 sexual assaults in Canada where sexual assault was the most serious violation in the incident. After removing incidents that could not be linked to court for methodological reasons (see the “Methodology: Record linkage” section), there were 93,501 in‑scope sexual assaults. An accused was identified in just over 55,000 (59%) of these incidents, and every three in four (74%) of these resulted in a charge being laid. In other words, an accused was not charged in one in four (26%) incidents in which they were identified by police. Overall, this means that less than half (43%)Note  of sexual assault incidents resulted in a criminal charge being laid. Of these charged incidents, half (49%) proceeded to court. Of the approximately 15,000 resulting court cases that retained a sexual assault charge,Note  just over half (55%) resulted in conviction, and just over half (56%) of these led to a custodial sentence. However, it must be noted that going to court after being charged with sexual assault by police does not necessarily mean that the charges heard in court were specifically for sexual assault. Changes in criminal offence charges between police and court are discussed in the next section.

Three in five sexual assault charges recommended by police were changed to another offence type once in court

Upon processing a case in court, a change in the offence type from what was initially charged by police is common. This change may occur as a result of plea bargaining or going to court in a jurisdiction without pre‑charge screening, or for other administrative, judicial, or procedural reasons (see Text box 3). In this study, sexual and physical assaults are included in attrition and conviction analyses irrespective of whether the charge initially laid by police changed to a different offence type once in court. However, in the aim of providing important context, a brief overview of change in charges is provided below.

Of the sexual assault incidents charged by police that went to court,Note  two in every five (40%) court charges remained sexual assault. The other three in five (60%) sexual assaults charged by police were changed to a different offence type by the time the court case was completed. The corresponding figure for linked physical assaults whose charges were changed once in court was less than half (45%).

Nearly one‑third (29%) of sexual assault charges that had changed once in court were changed to a sexual offence other than sexual assault.Note  Most of these were specifically for offences that apply to victims under the age of sexual consent, such as sexual interference of a person under 16 years of age (accounting for 60% of charges changed to a different sexual offence), invitation to sexual touching of a person under 16 (15%), and sexual exploitation of a young person where the accused was in a position of trust or authority (10%).

One‑quarter (25%) of sexual assault charges that were changed once in court became physical assault charges, the majority (84%) of which were for physical assault level 1. Given the negative social stigma attached to convictions for sexual offences as well as the mandatory application of the Sex Offender Information Registration Act (Davies 2017), this may play in role in the decision to change a sexual assault charge to an offence that is non‑sexual in nature once in court, such as physical assault. Finally, about one in five (19%) sexual assault charges were changed to an administration of justice‑related offence charge,Note  largely consisting of failure to comply with an order (52%) and breach of probation offences (41%).

By comparison, of physical assault charges that had changed between police and court, over one‑third (39%) were changed to administration of justice offences, one in five (20%) to threats, criminal harassment or other crimes against the person, and 14% had changed to mischief or disturbing the peace charges. Administration of justice charges generally see high conviction rates, with a guilty finding in three of every four cases (Burczycka and Munch 2015). As such, this may be part of the reason for why sexual or physical assault charges are changed to an administration of justice offence if the Crown is seeking a charge with the highest likelihood of conviction.

It is important to note that when a criminal incident is charged by police, other offences may be associated with the incident that were not all necessarily charged (see ‘most serious violation in the incident’ in the “Key concepts and definitions” section). Over half (55%) of police‑reported sexual assaults that went to court had at least one more offence on the incident file in addition to the sexual assault. These secondary offences most frequently included: other sexual offences (43%) (e.g., sexual interference, sexual exploitation); physical assaults (31%); administration of justice offences (19%), and other violent offences that were considered a less serious violation than the sexual assaultNote  (17%). Secondary violation information provides more context about an incident and suggests that most sexual assault charges that were changed once in court were in fact switched to an offence that had been on the initial police file as a secondary violation. Said otherwise, these were not so much changes to an unrelated criminal offence, but rather re‑classifications to an offence that was committed alongside the sexual assault but was not the most serious offence charged initially by police.

A change in charge type may also be the result of a plea bargain. Instead of pleading guilty to the charged offence, the Crown may offer the accused a plea bargain—more or less a judicial compromise—where the accused accepts responsibility for a specific offence or offences. The defence and Crown do not debate the guilt of the accused, rather, they opt to agree on the facts admitted by the accused, who is then sentenced on the charges they plead guilty to. Sometimes an accused will plead guilty to all charges that were laid, but it is not uncommon for an accused to enter guilty pleas to only some of the charges, or lesser charges, depending on the circumstances (e.g., where charges are duplicative of one another). Even for cases resolved by way of a plea bargain, the judge retains the discretion to impose a sentence that may be higher or lower than what the Crown and/or the defence proposed.

Figures presented in this section represent the changes in offence types at the charge level. However, court outcomes must also be considered at the case level. Given that an accused can be charged with multiple different offences within a single court case, judicial decisions are typically made based on the full picture of all the charges in a case and not on one single charge. Sexual assault court cases contained an average of 13 criminal charges, while physical assaults contained an average of nine charges per court case. Most (84%) sexual assault linked court cases had at least one charge within the case that was specifically for sexual assault, even if it was not the offence that resulted in a guilty verdict. The corresponding figure for physical assault was 96%. Taken together, findings suggest that while a sexual assault charge initially assigned by police is often changed to another offence type by the time the case is completed in court, for the majority of cases, at least one sexual assault charge is retained within the court case, even if it was not the charge that received the guilty verdict.

Part 2: Conviction outcomes of sexual assaults that proceed to court

Once a criminal charge is accepted by the Crown and a court case is heard, the accused may be convicted (i.e., found guilty), acquitted, or the case may be stayed, withdrawn, dismissed, or discharged. Because this study derived court outcomes from police‑reported incidents, the methodological challenges that come with using linked data should be considered when interpreting the results.

Police and court data are two separate information sources and each has different ways of counting records. One police‑reported incident does not necessarily amount to one court charge or one court case—it is not a simple one‑to‑one relationship. For example, multiple police‑reported incidents can lead to the same court case; there can be many different criminal charges within one court case (some of which may be unrelated to the sexual assault incident reported by police used in this analysis); one individual can be implicated in more than one court case; new charges may be laid by the Crown or by police after the case begins; and due to the possibility for a change in the offence type charged between police and court, not all charges heard in court are necessarily for the same offence(s) that were initially charged by police. Attrition findings presented thus far used police‑reported incidents as the unit of count; however, measuring conviction outcomes requires analyzing linked data by court cases.

Moving forward, for ease of readability, this report uses the term ‘sexual assault cases’ when analyzing conviction outcomes. This does not necessarily mean that a court case resulted in a conviction specifically for the sexual assault charge; rather, a conviction is represented by the most serious offence in the case, which depends on the charge with the most serious decision in the case (e.g., guilty). This means that the conviction may have been for an offence other than sexual assault. Given the complexities of using linked data from two different sources, these particulars should be noted. All conviction outcomes presented from this point on represent the most serious offence in a court case that retained at least one sexual assault charge within the case, and that had linked to a police‑reported sexual assault within the six‑year reference period.

For more information on the methodology behind analyzing court data, see Text box 4.

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Text box 4
Analytical considerations when determining court outcomes of linked data

Typically, sexual assault court outcomes from the Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) are determined using the “most serious offence in the case”Note  where sexual assault was the most serious charge in the court case (see Maxwell 2017). Information on the ICCS is independent from police records and unlike linked data, is unable to demonstrate that many police‑reported sexual assaults end up as offences other than sexual assault once in court. These sexual assaults are retained in the present study in order to provide the complete picture of court outcomes for all police‑reported sexual assaults. That being said, analyzing outcomes of court charges that are unrelated to sexual assault may not be wholly representative of sexual assault court outcomes in the truest sense, as these court decisions would be based on various other offences, some of which may be less serious in nature (e.g., administration of justice offences). For this reason, a compromise of the two analytical options was applied to facilitate the most meaningful and relevant analysis of what happens to police‑reported sexual assaults once they get to court: analyzing court outcomes of sexual assaults with a charge laid that linked to a court case which retained at least one sexual assault charge within the court case, regardless of whether it was the most serious charge in the case. This represents 84% of all court cases in the sexual assault linkage and 96% of all court cases for the corresponding physical assault linkage.

Although all court cases analyzed herein will have a sexual assault charge present in the case, this does not mean that guilty cases were convicted specifically on the sexual assault charge. Convictions represent a guilty finding for the most serious offence in the case, which is selected based on: 1) the charge with the most serious decision (i.e., guilty would be the most serious decision possible); and then by 2) the seriousness of the offence type based on sentencing decisions and duration of the sentence (e.g., length of the average custody sentences). In other words, not all court cases had a sexual assault charge that represented the most serious offence in the case: just over half (52%) of convicted court cases had been found guilty specifically for a sexual assault charge as the most serious offence in the case. The other half (48%) were convicted of a different offence, though a sexual assault charge was present elsewhere in the case.

Finally, in an effort to further simplify the presentation and interpretation of findings, court decision outcomes are presented as ‘convicted cases’ or ‘cases found guilty’ as opposed to the standard ICCS language (‘cases resulting in a guilty decision’ or ‘guilty findings’). Technically, it is a person that can be convicted or found guilty, and a court case which can result in a guilty finding.

Comparability to standard court data

Given that this study uses new linked data in addition to a different method of measuring court outcomes, conviction rates for sexual assaults presented in this article will not match previously published ICCS figures for the same period of study. For reference, between 2009/2010 and 2014/2015, ICCS data reported that just under half (45%) of cases (including adult and youth) were found guilty of sexual assault as the most serious offence in the case, compared with half (51%) of physical assault cases. Though these figures are different from the findings of the present study (55% and 59%), the disparity between the two assault types is similar.

For more information on analytical and methodological considerations of the data, see the “Analytical approach: Court outcomes” section at the end of this report.

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Just over half of sexual assault cases were convicted

Of the police‑reported sexual assaults that went to adult or youth court within the six‑year reference period and resulted in a completed court case that retained at least one sexual assault charge (see Text box 4), just over half (55%) were found guilty.Note  This is compared with a slightly higher conviction rate (59%) for physical assaults. Two in five (39%) sexual assault linked cases were stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged,Note  5% were acquitted, and 1% of cases resulted in other decisionsNote  (Chart 2). The corresponding figures for physical assault were the same (39%) for stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged cases,Note  1% for acquittals, and 1% for other decisions. Verdicts of stayed, withdrawn, discharged or dismissed are not the same thing as an acquittal—an acquittal requires that a trial took place and a verdict of not guilty was reached for all the charges presented before the court. A verdict of stayed, withdrawn, discharged or dismissed signifies that the prosecution or the court opted to discontinue the charges against the accused or put the charges on hold (including due to unreasonable delays in hearing the case) and a trial was either not held or partially held.

Chart 2 Court case decisions, linked sexual assaults versus physical assaults charged by police, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Chart 2
Data table for Chart 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 2. The information is grouped by Assault type (appearing as row headers), Physical assault and Sexual assault, calculated using percent (distribution) units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Assault type Physical assault Sexual assault
percent (distribution)
GuiltyData table Note 1 59 55
Stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged2Data table Note 2 39 39
AcquittedData table Note 3 1 5
OtherData table Note 4 1 1

From an attrition perspective, for every 1,000 sexual assaults reported by police, only 117 resulted in a court conviction for the most serious offence in the case (Figure 1). This translates into a global attrition rate of 88%, where nearly 9 in 10 sexual assaults reported by police did not result in conviction. The corresponding police‑to‑conviction attrition rate was 77% for physical assaults.

One in four sexual assault charges was convicted

Conviction outcomes can also be analyzed by individual charges. Though many police‑reported sexual assaults that proceed to court do not end up as sexual assault charges, the outcomes of those that do remains important. Put simply, these include sexual assaults charged by police that remained sexual assault charges once they proceeded to court, representing 40% of all sexual assaults that went to court.Note  One‑quarter (24%) of these sexual assault charges were convicted. The corresponding conviction rate for linked physical assault charges was nearly double (40%). Recall that these convictions do not take into account guilty findings on different charges within the same case, as discussed in Text box 4.

Of the sexual assault cases that resulted in a guilty finding, the vast majority (81%) involved sexual assault charges that represented the most serious offence in their respective cases. The remaining 19% involved a guilty finding on a charge that was not sexual assault. This means that when a sexual assault charge is retained in court, most of the time the guilty finding is specifically for a sexual assault, however for every one in five sexual assault cases, the conviction is for an offence other than the sexual assault.

Part 3: Sentencing outcomes of convicted sexual assaults

Similar to conviction outcomes, sentencing decisions presented in this report reflect the most serious sentence handed down in a court case that resulted from a sexual assault reported by police between 2009 and 2014 where a charge was laid. Consequently, sentencing outcomes do not necessarily represent a sentence assigned specifically for the sexual assault, but rather, the sentence for whichever charge was the most serious offence within a given case (see the “Key concepts and definitions” section).

Sexual assaults far more likely to result in a custody sentence than physical assaults

Sentencing was the one stage of the criminal justice system where sexual assault cases were dealt with more harshly than physical assault cases. Of the linked cases convicted in adult court, over half (56%) were sentenced to custody as the most serious sentence in the case. This is compared with about one‑third (36%) of physical assault cases (Chart 3). Other sentences imposed in linked sexual assault cases convicted in adult court include probation (29%), conditional sentences (9%), fines (3%), and other types of sentencesNote  (3%).Note 

Chart 3 Sentencing outcomes of adult court cases found guilty, by linked sexual assaults versus physical assaults, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Chart 3
Data table for Chart 3
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 3. The information is grouped by Assault type (appearing as row headers), Physical assault and Sexual assault, calculated using percent (distribution) units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Assault type Physical assault Sexual assault
percent (distribution)
CustodyData table Note 1 36 56
Conditional sentenceData table Note 2 5 9
ProbationData table Note 3 47 29
Fine 5 3
OtherData table Note 4 6 3

Because young offenders have different sentencing principles and sentence types than adult offenders, findings presented in the body of this report pertain only to adult sentencing outcomes. Adult court cases represented 87% of all linked court cases with at least one sexual assault charge in the case and 85% of all convicted cases. Data specific to sentencing outcomes completed in youth court are provided in Text box 5 along with attrition and conviction outcomes for young offenders.

Start of text box

Text box 5
Justice outcomes for young offenders accused of sexual assault

The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) applies to youth between 12 and 17 years of age who were accused of a crime and carries different sentencing principles than those applied in adult court. These include, briefly: to take into account the maturity of the young person and the circumstances under which the crime was committed; to impose the least restrictive sentence capable of achieving the purpose of sentencing and most likely to rehabilitate and reintegrate the youth; and to reduce the use of custody and consider all other available reasonable sentencing options first (Department of Justice Canada 2015).

Police‑reported sexual assaults that involved a youth accused were far less likely than those that involved an adult accused (18 years of age and older) to have a charge laid in the incident (60% versus 78%).Note  For physical assaults, an even wider gap in charge rate was observed between youth and adult accused (48% versus 72%). However, the attrition rate between police charge and court was nearly the same for youth (49%) as it was for adults (51%) accused of sexual assault. This suggests that the biggest driver of attrition for youth accused of sexual assault occurs at the outset of the criminal justice system when a decision is made by police or the Crown to not lay charges. Much of this attrition is explained by the use of alternative or extrajudicial measures as encouraged by the YCJA, where police exercise their discretion and can refer young offenders to diversion programs instead of going through the formal judicial system.

Court cases completed in youth court between 2009/2010 and 2014/2015 represent 13% of all linked court cases in this study. Of these youth cases, nearly two in three (62%) resulted in a guilty finding on the most serious offence in the case, which is higher than the proportion of guilty adult cases (54%).Note  About one‑third (32%) of youth sexual assault cases were stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged, 5% were acquitted, and 1% resulted in other decisions. As was the case in adult court, conviction rates in youth court were marginally lower for linked sexual assault cases (62%) than for physical assault cases (65%).

Sentencing outcomes were generally less harsh in youth court than in adult court. Given the different sentencing principles for young offenders, this is to be expected. Of linked sexual assaults convicted in youth court where a sexual assault charge was retained in the case, nearly two in three (64%) were sentenced to probation as the most serious sentence in the case. About one in five (23%) youth court cases were sentenced to custody (includes custody and supervision or deferred custody and supervision), 3% to intensive support and supervision, 1% to community supervision, and 9% to other types of sentences.Note  A similar sentencing pattern was seen among youth cases of physical assault: over half (54%) were sentenced to probation and one in five (22%) were sentenced to a form of custody.Note 

Overall, the findings show that sexual assaults committed by youth were far less likely to be charged by police than those perpetrated by adult offenders, and this marks the greatest driver of attrition for young offenders accused of sexual assault. Of the cases that were retained in the system and proceeded to court, youth were more likely to be convicted in sexual assault cases than adults, but were sentenced more leniently. The same attrition, conviction and sentencing patterns were also observed among youth and adult physical assault cases.

End of text box

Sexual assaults more prone to dropping out of the justice system than physical assaults, but if retained they are convicted at similar rates and sentenced more harshly

The overall attrition, conviction, and sentencing outcome analyses presented in this study suggest the following key points: 1) sexual assaults were far more likely to drop out of the justice system between police charge and court than were physical assaults; 2) when sexual assaults proceeded to court, just over half were convicted—which is similar to the conviction rate for physical assault; 3) of the minority of sexual assaults that went to court and were convicted (12%), sentencing outcomes were notably harsher when compared with physical assaults. Nonetheless, despite these important findings and the advantages of linked data in quantifying the drop‑off at each level of the justice system, the events that take place between a police charge and court—including the incidence of alternative justice measures, plea bargains and/or charge downgrading—remain a significant information gap in wholly answering the question of why sexual assaults drop out of the justice system.

Part 4: Sexual assault justice outcomes by incident, accused, and victim characteristics

Part 1 through Part 3 of this report established the overall attrition, conviction and sentencing outcomes for sexual assaults reported by police in Canada. But do justice outcomes vary depending on where the sexual assault took place, or by who the accused or the victim was? Is dropping out of the justice system more common for assailants who were related to their victims? Are sexual assaults that were reported to police long after they occurred less likely to secure a conviction? Is sentencing harsher for perpetrators who caused physical injuries to their victim? This section explores how various incident, accused and victim characteristics may play a role in court outcomes.

As discussed in Part 2 and Part 3, conviction rates and sentencing outcomes presented herein do not reflect convictions or sentences specifically for a sexual assault charge, but rather for the most serious offence in cases that retained a sexual assault charge through from police to court. Similarly, the same methodological limitations apply, including the unavailability of data from superior court cases in certain provinces and the limitations of the imposed six‑year reference period (refer to the “Methodology: Record linkage” section). In addition to these limitations, some additional caveats for analysis of court outcomes by the characteristics of the police‑reported incident apply (see the “Analytical approach: Court outcomes” section for further detail). Due to the fundamentally different sentencing principles applied in youth court (Text box 5), sentencing outcomes discussed below represent court sentences handed down in adult court only unless otherwise specified.

Court outcomes and investigative challenges

Delayed reports of sexual assault to police see high attrition and low conviction rates

A delay in reporting to police—the time between when the offence took place and when it was reported to police—is far more common among sexual assaults than physical assaults (Rotenberg 2017). For victims of sexual assault, non‑reporting or a delay in reporting has been attributed to the emotional trauma endured (DuMont et al. 2003), including feelings of shame and a victim’s fear that they will be blamed or humiliated for the incident (Weiss 2010). Further, a prior relationship with the assailant may be a barrier for some victims to promptly report the sexual assault to police (Felson and Paré 2005; Jones et al. 2009), which is important to consider given that the vast majority (87%) of sexual assaults charged by police are committed by someone known to the victim (Rotenberg 2017).

Notwithstanding the important context behind the delay in reporting for victims of sexual assault, this study found that the longer the time period between the sexual assault and when it was reported to police, the more likely the incident was to drop out of the justice system before court (Chart 4, secondary axis). Specifically, of sexual assaults charged by police that were reported the same day the incident occurred, just over half (53%) proceeded to court, compared with one‑third (34%) that were reported over one week after the incident, and only one in five (19%) that were reported more than one year later. Just 16% of charged sexual assaults that had been reported more than three years after they took place proceeded to court.

Chart 4 Conviction and retention rates of sexual assault incidents, by length of delay in reporting to police, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Chart 4
Data table for Chart 4
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 4. The information is grouped by Date incident reported to police relative to the date the incident occurred (appearing as row headers), Conviction rate and Retention rate from police charge to court, calculated using percent convicted and retention rate units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Date incident reported to police relative to the date the incident occurred Conviction rate Retention rate from police charge to court
percent convictedData table Note 1 retention rateData table Note 2
Same day 56 53
1 day to 1 week later 47 59
Over 1 week to 1 month later 43 52
Over 1 month to 3 months later 43 46
Over 3 months to 1 year later 42 35
Over 1 year to 3 years later 39 26
More than 3 years laterData table Note 3 45 16

As the time between when a sexual assault occurred and when it was reported to police increased, the likelihood of conviction decreased (Chart 4, primary axis). Over half (56%) of sexual assault court cases where the incident had been reported to police on the same day it took place were found guilty, compared with about two in five (43%) cases where there was a delay in reporting of more than one week (data not shown). Sexual assaults reported over three years after they took place are an exception: the uptick in conviction rate (45%) (Chart 4) is largely driven by the overrepresentation of child victims of sexual assault among incidents reported over three years after they occurred. Sexual assault cases involving children have higher conviction rates more generally (see the subsequent section “Child victims of sexual assault most likely to see perpetrator convicted, but least likely to see charge proceed to court”).

These findings resonate with other research which suggests that a delay in reporting of a sexual assault to police impedes the collection of forensic evidence which may then be lost over time, or may undermine witnesses’ memories which can affect their credibility (Cashmore et al. 2016; Lievore 2003). Additionally, the case may be dropped because of the perception that if a victim delays in reporting then the legitimacy of the allegation should be called into question (Spohn et al. 2001).

Once a conviction was secured, delay in reporting of a sexual assault to police did not have a notable impact on sentencing outcomes. Sexual assaults reported to police on the same day they occurred did not see a marked difference in the proportion of guilty cases sentenced to custody (56%) in adult court compared with those reported over three years after they occurred (59%). The absence of disparity may be explained by the filtering effect of the court process, given that a much smaller proportion of delayed reports of sexual assault made it to the sentencing stage of the justice system (e.g., 3% of sexual assaults reported over one year after they occurred were convicted and eligible for sentencing compared with 13% of sexual assaults that were reported on the same day).

The relationship between delay in reporting and increased attrition and low conviction rates was not unique to sexual assaults; this pattern was also observed for physical assaults. For example, the majority (76%) of physical assaults with a charge laid that were reported to police on the same day the incident occurred proceeded to court, compared with less than two‑thirds (63%) that were reported over one week after the incident, and nearly one‑third (38%) of physical assaults that were reported more than one year later.

Moreover, while over half (54%) of physical assaults reported on the same day of the assault were convicted once in court, a lower proportion (43%) of those reported over one week after the incident resulted in a conviction, as did less than one‑third (31%) of physical assaults reported over one year after they took place.

These findings suggest that delay in reporting may impact justice outcomes irrespective of the assault type. However, given that sexual assaults are far more likely to involve cases of delayed reporting than physical assaults (Rotenberg 2017), sexual assaults may be more prone to the high attrition and low conviction rates that come with delayed reporting. These findings offer important context to consider when comparing justice outcomes between sexual and physical assaults.

Sexual assaults with complete incident information more likely to be retained in the justice system

Sexual assaults with complete information on the incident file provided by policeNote  —including known time or location type of the crime, the relationship between the accused and the victim, presence of weapons or degree of physical injury to the victim—were more likely to move forward through the justice system than sexual assaults with incomplete information. Over half (53%) of sexual assaults charged by police that had complete incident information proceeded to court, compared with two in five (42%) sexual assaults that had at least one incomplete or unknown element on the file. Further, a smaller proportion (38%) of sexual assaults with two or more incomplete elements on file proceeded to court.

Of incidents that went to court, a marginally lower proportion of sexual assaults that had at least one unknown element on the incident file were convicted (48%) compared with those with complete information (51%). Of convicted cases, no significant differences in severity of sentencing were observed (Table 3).

Given the relationship between delay in reporting to police and the incidence of incomplete information or unknowns present on the police incident file (Rotenberg 2017), neither factor should be interpreted as independently decreasing the chances of conviction or retention in the system. Both factors appear to collectively constitute investigational challenges for sexual assaults that may, in part, explain why some cases do not move forward in the justice system.

Court outcomes by location, weapons, and injuries

Sexual assaults committed on private property less likely to go to court

Sexual assaults that took place on private propertyNote  were more likely to drop out of the justice system than those that occurred in open areas.Note  While three in five (60%) sexual assaults that were committed in an open area proceeded from police charge to court, less than half (46%) of sexual assaults committed on private property did. Other research has found that in absence of third party witnesses or other corroborating evidence, sexual assaults are not likely to proceed to court (Spohn et al. 2001). Though information on the presence of witnesses is not currently available from police‑reported data, the location type of the crime may serve as a proxy for witnesses given the possible increased chance for witnesses to be present when a crime is committed in an open area than for one committed on private property.

Sexual assaults that happened on private property were equally as likely as those that occurred in an open area to be convicted once in court (53% for both). Of note, a lower proportion of sexual assaults that took place on school propertyNote  or in a commercial spaceNote  resulted in a conviction (44% for both).

Upon sentencing, custody sentences were most likely to be imposed for cases that involved a sexual assault on private property (60%) than for sexual assaults committed in an open area (53%).

Sexual assaults committed in major cities were more likely to go to court but less likely to be convicted

A greater proportion of sexual assaults charged by police within a census metropolitan area (CMA) proceeded to court after being charged by police (52%) compared with sexual assaults that occurred outside of a CMA (46%) (see the “Key concepts and definitions” section). However, once in court, CMA‑based sexual assaults were less likely to result in conviction (48%) than sexual assaults that took place outside of a CMA (56%). This was not unique to sexual assaults; however, as a similar discrepancy in conviction rate was also observed among physical assault cases (50% versus 60%).

In Canada, practices such as pre‑charge screening, which takes place prior to a formal court hearing, can vary by province or territoryNote  (Maxwell 2017). As such, attrition rates by province or territory should not be interpreted or compared without the context of the different procedural practices in place at the provincial or territorial level.

The attrition rates between police charge and completed court case were highest in Nunavut (77%), the Northwest Territories (64%) and New Brunswick (59%) (see Table 1). Police‑reported sexual assault charges were most likely to result in a completed court case within the six‑year reference period in Yukon (lowest attrition rate of 33%), Newfoundland and Labrador (45%), and Alberta (46%).

Notwithstanding differences in pre‑charge screening processes by province or territory, conviction rates were highest in the territories (Yukon at 69%, Nunavut at 65%, and the Northwest Territories at 61%) as well as in New Brunswick (69%). Conversely, conviction rates were lowest in Alberta (47%), followed by Ontario (49%). Stays, withdrawals, dismissals or discharges of cases were most common in Ontario (46%) and Alberta (45%), and acquittals were proportionally highest in Nova Scotia (12%). Outcomes for regions with low base figures, such as the territories and in smaller provinces, should be noted and interpreted with caution (see Table 2).

Sentencing outcomes by province and territory are not provided in Table 3 due to small counts and concerns of data comparability and reliability.Note 

Long‑term incidents of sexual assault more likely to drop out of the justice system

Sexual assaults that were considered by police to have been perpetrated over a period of time longer than one week (defined here as ‘long‑term’ sexual assaults) were at much greater risk of dropping out of the criminal justice system between police charge and court compared with isolated incidents of sexual assault (68% versus 45%). This discrepancy may be explained by the overrepresentation of children among victims of long‑term sexual assaults (Rotenberg 2017), given that sexual assaults of children are among the most likely to drop out of the justice system (see the subsequent section “Child victims of sexual assault most likely to see perpetrator convicted, but least likely to see charge proceed to court”).

Long‑term sexual assault incidents saw a marginally lower conviction rate (49%) than isolated sexual assaults (52%). No notable differences in severity of sentencing decisions were observed.

Sexual assaults that involved a weapon more likely to be charged by police, go to court, be convicted, and sentenced more harshly

Though the legal characterization of the seriousness of a sexual assault is determined by the Criminal Code in three levels (Text box 1 and Text box 6), the severity of a sexual assault may also be characterized by the degree of physical injuries sustained by the victim or by whether weapons were present.

When there was a weapon present during the sexual assault, cases were retained at all levels of the justice system at higher rates than those with no weapon present.Note  Sexual assaults with a weapon present were more likely to: be charged by police (53% versus 45%), proceed to court after being charged (60% versus 49%), be convicted (55% versus 51%), and more likely to receive a custody sentence (60% versus 55%) (Chart 5). Given that only a minority (4%) of sexual assaults overall involve a weapon (Rotenberg 2017), the increased retention rates seen for cases with a weapon present do not apply to the vast majority of sexual assaults. Of note, sexual assaults where the presence of a weapon could not be determined by police and was reported as unknown were far less likely to result in a charge laid by police (23%) or to proceed to court (42%) (Chart 5), findings of which speak to the increased attrition rates seen among incidents with incomplete or unknown information more generally as previously discussed in this article.

Chart 5 Retention rates of sexual assault incidents by level of the criminal justice system and weapon presence, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Chart 5
Data table for Chart 5
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 5. The information is grouped by Level of the criminal justice system (appearing as row headers), Weapon present, Physical force and Unknown whether weapon present, calculated using retention rate units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Level of the criminal justice system Weapon present Physical force Unknown whether weapon present
retention rateData table Note 1
Incidents charged by policeData table Note 2 53 45 23
Incidents that went to courtData table Note 3 60 49 42
Incidents that led to a convictionData table Note 4 55 51 52
Incidents that led to a custody sentence (adults)Data table Note 5 60 55 62

Sexual assaults that caused physical injury to the victim more likely to be retained in the justice system

Physical injury to the victim can be a key piece of evidence presented in court when an accused is being tried for a violent offence. Despite the absence of physical injury to the victim in most cases (66%) of sexual assault (Rotenberg 2017), some research has found that physical injury is the strongest predictor of a positive legal outcome for sexual assault cases with respect to harsher conviction rates and sentencing penalties (DuMont and White 2007).

Similar to weapon presence, physical injury to the victim also appears to be associated with greater retention of sexual assault cases in the justice systemNote  (Chart 6). The same pattern was observed among physical assaults. The retention gap was widest for sexual assaults at the police charge stage, where findings suggest that police‑reported sexual assaults with no or unknown levels of victim injury are at greatest risk for not securing a charge, consequently dropping out of the justice system at the earliest stage analyzed in this study.

Chart 6 Retention rates of sexual assault incidents by level of the criminal justice system and level of physical injury experienced by the victim, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Chart 6
Data table for Chart 6
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 6. The information is grouped by Level of the criminal justice system (appearing as row headers), Minor/major injury, No physical injury and Unknown physical injury, calculated using retention rate units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Level of the criminal justice system Minor/major injury No physical injury Unknown physical injury
retention rateData table Note 1
Incidents charged by policeData table Note 2 52 41 32
Incidents that went to courtData table Note 3 52 49 42
Incidents that led to a convictionData table Note 4 53 50 47
Incidents that led to a custody sentence (adults)Data table Note 5 59 54 57

While these findings are limited to a victim’s physical injury as reported by police and do not capture other forensic evidence that may have been presented in court (such as sexual assault kits), they align with the broader scope of research on the value of physical evidence in charging and prosecuting sexual assault cases (Campbell et al. 2009; Gray‑Eurom et al. 2002; Johnson and Peterson 2008; McGregor et al. 1999; Spaulding and Bigbee 2001; Tasca et al. 2012).

Start of text box

Text box 6
Court outcomes by level of sexual assault

Drawing conclusions from court outcomes of sexual assaults by level (as defined by the Criminal Code) should be done with caution given the small number of incidents for the higher levels of sexual assault. As previously reported, the vast majority (98%) of sexual assault incidents reported by police between 2009 and 2014 were level 1 offences (Rotenberg 2017). Further, as with any offence that proceeds to court, the specific Criminal Code offence that an accused is charged with may change between the charge laid by police or the Crown and the charge heard in court.

Notwithstanding these limitations, court outcome analysis by the sexual assault level initially charged by police suggests that the most serious sexual assaults (level 2 and 3) were more likely to proceed to court, marginally more likely to be convicted, and are sentenced more severely than level 1 sexual assaults.

Overall, a notably higher proportion of police‑reported level 2 and 3 sexual assaults went to court than level 1 sexual assaults (36% versus 21%). Once in court, a similar proportion of level 2 and 3 sexual assaults (53%) were convicted as level 1 sexual assaults (51%), though recall that this is not necessarily a reflection of the offences actually heard in court (see the “Three in five sexual assault charges recommended by police were changed to another offence type once in court” section).

Of police‑reported sexual assaults that resulted in a conviction, a higher proportion of level 2 or 3 sexual assaults were sentenced to custody (70%) than level 1 sexual assaults (55%).

End of text box

Court outcomes by accused characteristics

Females accused of sexual assault more likely to drop out of the justice system

Notwithstanding that females account for a minority (2%) of persons charged with sexual assault (Rotenberg 2017), they were more likely than their male counterparts to experience attrition out of the justice system. This discrepancy was noted at the charge level, where police‑reported sexual assaults involving a female accused were far less likely to result in a charge laid (51%) than incidents involving a male accused (74%). Further, of those charged by police, female‑perpetrated sexual assaults were less likely to go to court (39%) than those perpetrated by a male (49%).

Of cases that went to court, a lower proportion of female‑perpetrated sexual assaults were convicted relative to those committed by a male (45% versus 52%). Base figures for sentencing outcomes of females convicted of sexual assault were too low to deduce a meaningful comparison (Table 3); however, when considering criminal offences more generally, females tend to see less harsh sentencing outcomes than males (Hotton Mahony et al. 2017).

Youngest and oldest accused most likely to drop out of the justice system

As explained in Text box 5, youth accused of sexual assault were most likely to drop out of the justice system at the police charge level. However, when considering all age groups, the data show that youth accused (between 12 and 17 years old) as well as older accused (55 years and older) were most likely to drop out of the justice system between police and court (Chart 7, secondary axis). For both of these accused age groups, less than one‑third (31%) went to court, compared with two in five (40%) accused who were between 25 and 34 years of age.

Chart 7 Conviction and attrition rates of sexual assault incidents, by accused age groups, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Chart 7
Data table for Chart 7
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 7. The information is grouped by Age of accused at the time of the sexual assault incident (appearing as row headers), Conviction rate and Attrition rate from police‑reported to court, calculated using percent convicted and global attrition rate units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Age of accused at the time of the sexual assault incident Conviction rate Attrition rate from police‑reported to court
percent convictedData table Note 1 global attrition rateData table Note 2
12 to 17 years 59 69
18 to 24 years 56 61
25 to 34 years 52 60
35 to 44 years 48 62
45 to 54 years 47 62
55 to 89 years 45 69

Age of the accused charged in connection with a sexual assault also appeared to be related to the conviction rate: the older the accused, the less likely they were to be convicted (Chart 7, primary axis). Specifically, of the youth accused who were between 12 and 17 years old at the time of the sexual assault and whose case proceeded to court, three in five (59%) were convicted. The proportion convicted declined for every subsequent older age group. The same pattern of declining conviction rate with age of the accused was observed among physical assault cases (data not shown).

No cascading patterns in proportion sentenced to custody were observed by accused age group; however, older accused aged 55 years and older were far less likely to be sentenced to custody than all other adult accused aged 18 to 54 (44% versus 57%). For sentencing outcomes of youth accused of sexual assault, refer to Text box 5.

Court outcomes by relationship and age characteristics

Victims sexually assaulted by someone they knew were far less likely than those victimized by a stranger to see their assailant go to court

The likelihood of going to court was far lower when the victim knew their assailant: nearly two in three (64%) sexual assaults committed by a stranger proceeded to court after being charged by police, whereas less than half (47%) of sexual assaults committed by someone known to the victim did (Chart 8). Given that the vast majority (87%) of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim (Rotenberg 2017), these findings are of particular importance in understanding the course of justice for most victims of sexual assaults. It should be noted that certain alternative measures or reasons why a case may not proceed to court (see Text box 3) may more applicable in cases where the victim knew their assailant.

Chart 8 Retention rates of sexual assault incidents charged by police that went to court by selected relationship types between the victim and their assailant, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Chart 8
Data table for Chart 8
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 8. The information is grouped by Relationship of accused to victim (appearing as row headers), Retention rate (appearing as column headers).
Relationship of accused to victim Retention rateData table Note 1
Stranger 64
Known to victimData table Note 2 47
Intimate partnerData table Note 3 55
Casual acquaintanceData table Note 4 52
Other familyData table Note 5 38
ParentData table Note 6 33

Of sexual assaults that went to court, there were no prominent differences in conviction rate for those victimized by a stranger compared with victims sexually assaulted by someone they knew (52% versus 50%). A slightly lower proportion of convicted cases involving a stranger were sentenced to custody compared with those involving an assailant known to the victim (52% versus 57%).

Child victims of sexual assault most likely to see perpetrator convicted, but least likely to see charge proceed to court

Although sexual assaults involving a child victim aged 13 and youngerNote  were slightly more likely than sexual assaults of adults aged 18 and older to be charged by police (44% versus 40%), they were far less likely to make it to court after a charge was laid (40% versus 55%).

Of the sexual assaults that proceeded to court, cases involving child victims were far more likely than those involving adult victims to result in conviction (61% versus 46%) (Chart 9). By comparison, among linked physical assaults, the difference in conviction rate between cases of child versus adult victims was marginal (54% versus 52%).

Chart 9 Conviction and attrition rates of sexual assault incidents, by major victim age group, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Chart 9
Data table for Chart 9
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 9. The information is grouped by Age group of victim at the time of the sexual assault incident (appearing as row headers), Conviction rate and Attrition rate from police charge to court, calculated using percent convicted and attrition rate
units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Age group of victim at the time of the sexual assault incident Conviction rate Attrition rate from police charge to court
percent convictedData table Note 1 attrition rateData table Note 2
Child (aged 13 and younger) 61 60
14 to 17 years of age 52 54
Adult (aged 18 and older) 46 45

Three in four (74%) convicted cases of sexual assault against a child were sentenced to custody compared with half (49%) of cases that involved a sexual assault against an adult victim. Given that certain sexual offences against children, including sexual assault, carry mandatory minimum penalties (Public Prosecution Service of Canada 2014), a higher proportion of custody sentences is expected for offenders who sexually assaulted a child. Moreover, the commission of an offence against a child is an aggravating factor in sentencing and the courts are required to give primary consideration to denunciation and deterrence (para. 718.2(a) (ii.1) and s. 718.01 Criminal Code). Notwithstanding these sentencing considerations, the findings are in line with other research including among international studies, which have generally agreed that the minority of child sexual assault cases that make it to court are more likely to be convicted or sentenced more harshly in part because the filtering of the attrition process has left behind the most serious of cases (Bunting 2008; Fitzgerald 2006; Parkinson et al. 2002).

Overall, the findings suggest that despite high conviction rates and harsher sentencing outcomes, sexual assaults against children are far less likely to go to court than sexual assaults of adult victims. However, this study also found higher attrition rates among family‑perpetrated sexual assaults, and given that children are overrepresented among those sexually assaulted by a family member (Chart 10) (Rotenberg 2017), justice outcomes for child victims of sexual assault should not be considered a result of their age alone. Some research has attributed the increased attrition of child sexual assault cases to insufficient evidence when dealing with children, and in some cases, the parents’ decision to protect their child from the burden of court proceedings (Parkinson et al. 2002).

Chart 10 Representation of child victims among sexual assaults charged by police that went to court, by selected relationship types between the victim and their assailant, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Chart 10
Data table for Chart 10
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 10. The information is grouped by Relationship type (appearing as row headers), Adult victims (aged 18 years and older), Victims aged 14 to 17 years of age and Child victims (aged 13 years and younger), calculated using percent (distribution) units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Relationship type Adult victims (aged 18 years and older) Victims aged 14 to 17 years of age Child victims (aged 13 years and younger)
percent (distribution)
ParentData table Note 1 16 32 52
Other familyData table Note 2 27 22 51
Casual acquaintanceData table Note 3 53 29 17
Intimate partnerData table Note 4 84 13 4
Stranger 74 18 8

Further, some of the attrition among cases of child sexual assault is driven by the compounding effect of delayed reporting: if only sexual assaults reported to police on the same day they occurred are considered, the retention rate for sexual assaults against child victims rises from 40% to 45%. That being said, this figure is still well under the corresponding retention rate of 57% for sexual assaults against adult victims that had no delay in reporting. This suggests that even when controlling for delay in reporting, sexual assaults against children still see greater attrition out of the justice system compared with sexual assaults of adult victims.

Sexual assaults perpetrated by a family member of the victim most likely to drop out of the justice system

Sexual assaults committed by someone who was related to the victim (of any age group) were least likely of all relationship types to go to court. Specifically, while half (49%) of all sexual assault incidents proceeded from police charge to court, only one‑third (33%) of sexual assaults involving a parent or step‑parent who victimized their child went to court, as did just over one‑third (38%) of sexual assaults where the accused was otherwise related to the victim (Chart 8).

Of the minority (17%) of police‑reported sexual assaults perpetrated by a family member of the victim that went to court, justice outcomes were harsher than for victims who were not related to their assailant. Two in three (67%) cases involving immediate family members of the victim (e.g., siblings) were convicted, as were over half (59%) of those involving extended family (e.g., grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sister/brother‑in‑law, parents‑in‑law, etc.). Parents or step‑parents were convicted to a lesser extent in half (50%) of cases, however these lower conviction rates may be partly explained by the increased delay in reporting for cases where children have been sexually assaulted by a parent (Rotenberg 2017) and the lower likelihood of conviction found among cases with a delayed report overall.

About half (52%) of sexual assaults that involved an assailant who was a stranger to the victim were convicted, as were half (50%) of cases that involved an intimate partner, and just under half (48%) that involved a casual acquaintance. Once convicted, parents saw the harshest sentencing outcomes with four in five (79%) cases sentenced to custody, while two in three (67%) cases involving family members other than parents were sentenced to the same. This is compared with half (52%) of sexual assault cases perpetrated by a stranger, and less than half (46%) of sexual assaults perpetrated by an intimate partner (the least likely relationship group to be sentenced to custody) (Table 3).

As previously established for police‑reported sexual assaults overall, children are overrepresented among victims sexually assaulted by a family member (Rotenberg 2017). This holds true for sexual assaults that proceeded to court, where over half (52%) of sexual assaults perpetrated by a parent involved a child victim aged 13 and younger as did over half (51%) of those perpetrated by a family member other than a parent (Chart 10). In contrast, only a minority (8%) of sexual assaults perpetrated by a stranger that went to court involved a child victim. Therefore, when interpreting court outcomes by the nature of the relationship between the victim and their assailant, it is important to consider whether child victims were involved given that children represent a far greater proportion of victims of family members than they do of strangers.

These findings suggest that while victims sexually assaulted by a family member—half of whom were children—do see high conviction rates and harsher sentencing penalties relative to other types of relationships between the victim and their assailant, these only represent a small minority of cases, given that most family‑perpetrated sexual assaults against children drop out of the justice system before court. Because of the increased likelihood of attrition at the outset, children sexually assaulted by a parent were in fact one of the least likely groups to see their assailant convicted if the full scope of the justice system from police to conviction is considered, with only 8% of all police‑reported sexual assaults perpetrated by a parent against their child leading to conviction.

Sexual assaults involving male victims were more likely than female victims to drop out of the justice system, whether the victim was a child or an adult

Notwithstanding that males represent a minority (13%) of victims of sexual assault (Rotenberg 2017), sexual assaults of male victims were more likely than those of female victims to drop out of the justice system between police charge and court (59% versus 50%). However, sexual assaults of males were slightly more likely to result in a conviction (54% versus 50%), and marginally more likely to be sentenced to custody (58% versus 56%). Some of this is explained by the overrepresentation of males among child victims of sexual assault: while males accounted for 11% of victims of sexual assaults reported by police overall (that were in‑scope for the linkage), they represented 23% of child victims. Thus, the higher attrition rate for sexual assaults against male victims may be in part due to the fact that male victims are more likely to be children, and child sexual assaults overall see higher attrition in addition to greater conviction rates and an increased likelihood of a custody sentence.

To control for this, when sexual assaults were limited to only those involving adult victims aged 18 and older, the conviction rate flips and is slightly lower for cases involving male victims than female victims (42% versus 46%). However, higher attrition rates for sexual assaults involving adult male victims remained, with 51% of incidents dropping out of the system between police charge and court compared with 45% for sexual assaults of adult women. This may be partly attributed to the tendency for male victims of sexual assault (including adult males) to delay in reporting to police longer than females (Rotenberg 2017), and the subsequent impact of delayed reporting on case attrition. Overall, findings suggest that although sexual assaults against males are far less common than those against females, they were more likely to drop out of the justice system whether the male victim was a child or an adult.

Retention rate highest for accused who were significantly younger than their victims and lowest for accused who were far older than their victims

Retention of sexual assault offences in the justice system appeared to be correlated with the age difference between the accused and the victim (Chart 11, secondary axis). The younger the accused was in relation to the victim, the more likely they were to be retained in the system: two in three (66%) sexual assaults involving an accused younger than their victim by 16 years or more went to court after being charged by police, compared with less than half (43%) of sexual assaults involving an accused older than their victim by 16 years or more. Much of the latter low retention rate was driven by sexual assaults perpetrated by family members far older than the victim, specifically parents or step‑parents.

Chart 11 Conviction and retention rates of sexual assault incidents, by age difference between the victim and their assailant, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Chart 11
Data table for Chart 11
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 11. The information is grouped by Age difference (appearing as row headers), Conviction rate and Retention rate from police charge to court, calculated using percent convicted and retention rate units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Age difference Conviction rate Retention rate from police charge to court
percent convictedData table Note 1 retention rateData table Note 2
Accused younger than victim 16 years or more 61 66
11 to 15 years 54 61
6 to 10 years 53 57
1 to 5 years 46 57
Same age 46 55
Accused older than victim 1 to 5 years 50 53
6 to 10 years 55 49
11 to 15 years 51 48
16 years or more 48 43

Notwithstanding that most sexual assaults involve an accused several years older than their victim (Rotenberg 2017), incidents involving an accused who was far younger than their victim had the greatest chance of conviction: three in five (61%) cases where the accused was 16 or more years younger than the victim were convicted compared with less than half (46%) of cases where the accused was either the same age or within 1 to 5 years younger than the victim (Chart 11, primary axis).

Upon sentencing, the greater the age difference between the victim and the accused, the more likely the case was sentenced to custody (Table 3). This was true in either direction, whether the accused was significantly older than the victim or whether the accused was far younger, in both adult and youth court.

To simplify and contextualize the findings, it may be suggested that middle‑aged to older women sexually assaulted by young men were most likely to see their assailant go to court and be convicted, whereas younger female and male victims of sexual assault (including children) who were victimized by middle‑aged to older men many years older than them were less likely to see the same course of justice.

Sexual assaults where the accused met some of the criteria for pedophilia most likely to drop out of the justice system before going to court

Pedophilia is clinically defined as having intense and recurrent sexual urges (whether acted upon or not) towards prepubescent children, where the person diagnosed is at least 16 years old and at least five years older than the child aged 13 and younger (American Psychiatric Association 2013). While the Criminal Code does not have offences specific to the clinical diagnosis of pedophilia, nor does police‑reported data contain information on pedophiles as a distinct group of accused, the age‑based component of the clinical definition of pedophilia is applied in this study to infer which sexual assault cases involve an accused who may meet some of the criteria for pedophilia (see the “Key concepts and definitions” section). About one in five (19%) sexual assaults that were charged by police over a six‑year period involved an accused who met the age‑based criteria for pedophilia as defined by this study (see also Rotenberg 2017).

Accused who met the age‑based criteria for pedophilia experienced greater attrition out of the justice system than any other age‑based groups: while over half (54%) of sexual assaults involving a victim and an assailant within the same peer age group (within five years) went to court after being charged by police, less than two in five (37%) pedophile‑perpetrated sexual assaults did. Much of this attrition was driven by family‑perpetrated sexual assaults in particular: sexual assaults committed by a family member accounted for half (49%) of all pedophile‑perpetrated sexual assaults that went to court, but only 18% of sexual assaults that went to court overall. Consequently, sexual assaults involving pedophiles who were strangers to their victims saw a much higher retention rate between police charge and court (59%) than did sexual assaults involving pedophiles who were related to the victim (33%) (Table 1).

These findings of increased attrition for sexual assaults with a pedophile accused should not be interpreted independently; rather, other factors such as family relationships and delay in reporting appear to have a compounding effect on attrition. For example, when controlling for delay in reporting by limiting cases to those reported to police on the same day they occurred, the attrition rate declined from 63% to 57% for pedophile‑perpetrated sexual assaults, and from 46% to 43% for sexual assaults perpetrated by someone in the same peer age group as the victim (within five years). This suggests that investigative challenges resulting from delayed reporting to police may explain some of the higher attrition rates seen among pedophile‑perpetrated sexual assaults against children; however, even when controlling for delay in reporting, attrition remains higher among sexual assaults that were perpetrated by someone who met the age‑based criteria for pedophilia.

Put simply, for sexual assaults perpetrated by a possible pedophile, if the accused was a stranger to the child victim then most cases were retained in the justice system. However, sexual assaults perpetrated by a possible pedophile who was a family member of the victim—including the victims’ parents—were at greatest risk of dropping out of the justice system. Delayed reporting of child sexual assaults to police further compounded the risk of attrition.

Children sexually assaulted by their parent least likely to see them go to court or be convicted

If the age of the victim, the accused, and the relationship between them are all considered in tandem, parents or step‑parents accused of sexually assaulting their child aged 13 and younger were the least likely group to go to court or be convicted.

A sexual assault committed by a parent against their child aged 13 years and younger is considered in this study as pedophilia by default.Note  Two in three (67%) sexual assaults of this nature dropped out of the justice system between police charge and court (Table 1). When compared with the attrition rate for sexual assaults perpetrated by pedophiles who were strangers to their victim (41%), this 26 percentage‑point gap marks one of the largest attrition gaps observed for all incident, accused, and victim characteristics analyzed in this study.

Though controlling for delay in reporting reduced the attrition rate for sexual assaults committed by a parent against their child (from 67% to 61%) and those perpetrated by a possible pedophile who was a stranger to their victim (from 41% to 36%), it is clear that delay in reporting does not explain the remaining large gap in attrition between these two types of pedophile‑perpetrated sexual assaults.

For cases that proceeded to court, conviction rates for parents accused of sexually assaulting their child were among the lowest (49%) out of all other groups analyzed (Table 2). Overall, based on police‑reported sexual assaults, about one in three (30%) children victimized by someone who was a stranger to them and met the age‑based criteria for pedophilia saw their assailant convicted in court, while only about 1 in 10 (13%) children who were sexually assaulted by their parent saw the same justice outcome.

Of cases that were convicted in adult court, four in five (81%) cases that involved parents accused of sexually assaulting their child were sentenced to custody. This is far greater than the proportion of pedophile‑perpetrated sexual assaults where the assailant was a stranger to the victim that were sentenced to custody (68%) and the proportion of sexual assaults sentenced to custody overall (56%) (Table 3).

To best summarize the justice outcomes for the different types of complex victim‑accused relationships discussed thus far, Figure 3 provides a visual depiction of both attrition and conviction rates for the pertinent victim and accused groups by nature of their relationship. This matrix allows for both justice measures to be considered simultaneously. Data points towards the far ends of each quadrant represent the types of relationships that deviate most from the baseline figures for sexual assault incidents overall (the intersection of the red dash lines). Note that categories may overlap.

Figure 3 Conviction and attrition rate matrix for selected accused and victim relationship-based characteristics, linked sexual assault incidents, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Data table for Figure 3
Data table for figure 3
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for figure 3 attrition rate and conviction rate (appearing as column headers).
attrition rateData table Note 1 conviction rateData table Note 2
Sexual assault overall 51 55
Child victim (13 and younger) 60 61
Youth victim (12 to 17) 55 54
Adult victim (18 and older) 45 46
Stranger accused 36 52
Accused known to victim 53 50
Intimate partner 45 50
Parent/step‑parent 67 50
Other family 62 61
Casual acquaintance 48 48
Pedophile group 63 58
Peer age group 46 48
Pedophile stranger 41 59
Pedophile parent/step‑parent 67 49
Pedophile other family 67 63
Pedophile casual acquaintance 57 62
Peer stranger 37 49
Peer intimate partner 43 51
Peer other family 58 58
Peer casual acquaintance 45 46

Overall, while retention is highest and court outcomes are harsher among sexual assaults involving perpetrators who met the age‑based criteria for pedophilia and who were strangers to their victims, the reverse is true for children who were victimized by their parent. Parents accused of sexually assaulting their child were among those with the highest attrition and lowest conviction rates, even after controlling for delay in reporting, making these cases most suspect to dropping out of the justice system.

Sexual assaults of adult victims perpetrated by someone in the victim’s peer age group had a relatively greater chance of making it to court, but conviction rates were among the lowest (Figure 3). This was particularly the case for sexual assaults perpetrated by someone who was a stranger or casual acquaintance to the victim and was within five years of the same age as the victim.

Summary

This study traced sexual assault offences from police to court and analyzed three key measures of justice: attrition of sexual assault cases between police and court, conviction rates for those that proceeded to court, and sentencing outcomes for guilty cases. By using linked sexual assault data, for the first time, it was possible to measure attrition across the justice system as opposed to analysing police figures and court outcomes independently of each other.

The findings show that the majority (79%) of sexual assaults reported by police did not end up in a court case that was completed within the six‑year reference period of study. This attrition rate is notably higher than that of physical assaults (61%). The greatest driver of attrition for sexual assaults was at the outset of the criminal justice system, with less than half (43%) of police‑reported incidents that were charged by police. However, relative to physical assaults, sexual assaults were far more likely to drop out of the justice system between the police charge and court stage, at which point half (49%) of sexual assaults charged by police proceeded to court, compared with a much larger proportion (75%) of physical assaults. Of the minority of assaults that went to court, sexual assaults saw a slightly lower conviction rate than physical assaults (55% versus 59%), but if convicted, sexual assaults were far more likely to result in a custody sentence (56% versus 36%).

If attrition across the criminal justice system is considered in its entirety, put simply, just over 1 in 10 (12%) sexual assaults reported and substantiated by police led to a criminal conviction, and only 7% resulted in a custody sentence. Overall, the findings of this study are not unlike those echoed in past research which has articulated a concern for the high attrition of sexual assaults in the justice system some decades ago (Gregory and Lees 1996; Gunn and Linden 1997; McNickle et al. 1978; Roberts 1994; Roberts 1996; Tang 1998).

Justice outcomes were also analyzed by available incident, victim and accused characteristics in the aim of identifying which factors may contribute to higher attrition or lower conviction rates (see Text box 7 for a high‑level summary). Higher attrition rates were seen among sexual assaults that: were reported to police long after they took place, had incomplete or unknown elements on the incident file as reported by police, did not involve a weapon, did not result in physical injury to the victim, took place on private property, involved a young offender, a child victim, a young male victim, a parent who had sexually assaulted their child, and/or victims who were otherwise related to their assailant (excluding spouses). Of incidents that went to court, lower conviction rates were observed among sexual assaults that involved: a delay in reporting to police, a female accused, an older accused aged 55 and older, a parent who had sexually assaulted their child, and adult victims sexually assaulted by someone within their peer age group, specifically by a casual acquaintance. Upon sentencing of convicted cases, more lenient sentences (i.e., a lower proportion sentenced to custody) were seen among sexual assaults where: no weapon was present, an adult was victimized by someone within their peer age group, and cases where victims were in a current or previous intimate relationship with their assailant.

These findings provide insight on the types of sexual assaults that are more prone to dropping out of the justice system and resonate with other research which attributes the attrition of sexual assault cases to both legal and extralegal factors (Spears and Spohn 1997; Tasca et al. 2012). Policy‑makers may benefit from the findings of this study to inform discussions about how different sexual assault cases are handled in the justice system, specifically delayed reports of sexual assault, and cases involving younger victims sexually assaulted by a family member. Further, findings may be beneficial to those developing best practices for sexual assault victim services who aid in navigating victims through the justice system process.

By nature of the offence, sexual assaults may prove more challenging to charge and convict than physical assaults for many reasons, including but not limited to: the absence of third‑party witnesses (Felson and Paré 2007) and having taken place on private property (this study), the absence of forensic evidence or physical injury (McGregor et al. 1999; Tasca et al. 2012; this study), investigational challenges such as delayed reporting and incomplete information about the incident (Johnson and Peterson 2008; Spaulding and Bigbee 2001; Lievore 2003; this study), pre‑existing relationships between the victim and their assailant whether through intimate relationship or family (Felson and Paré 2005; Jones et al. 2009; this study), inconsistencies in victim statements (Alderden and Ullman 2012), the application of harmful gender stereotypes and rape myths (Grubb and Turner 2012; Sampert 2010; Weiss 2009), and the burden on the Crown to prove absence of consent beyond a reasonable doubt (Randall 2010). Finally, although corroboration from a third party is not required to convict an accused person of sexual assault (s. 274 Criminal Code), the production of supporting evidence that a sexual assault took place and that consent was not given by the victim may be especially challenging to prove given the often private nature of the act itself.

Future research

Using the methodology established in this study to trace police‑reported sexual assaults through to court outcomes, future research may benefit from applying this model to other offence types. In particular, repeating a similar attrition analysis for all sexual offences against children would be of value. Under the Criminal Code, there are many other offences against children that are sexual in nature beyond just sexual assault, such as child sexual exploitation and sexual interference. Given that sexual assaults perpetrated by someone who met the aged‑based criteria for pedophilia resulted in some of the highest attrition rates observed in the present study, focusing on child victims of all sexual offences and exploring what types of incident, victim, and accused characteristics may present as a barrier in moving forward through the levels of the criminal justice system is warranted.

Attrition due to lack of criminal charge laid at the police or Crown level was analyzed to a limited extent in the present study where findings were most pertinent, as attrition analysis was mostly focused on the drop‑off between police charge and court. As such, there is further room to analyze the drop‑off of sexual assault cases at the charge level by incident, victim and accused characteristics in the aim of determining what kinds of sexual assault cases are most prone to dropping out of the justice system at an earlier stage in the process.

While the present study analyzed overall attrition and court outcomes for youth who had been accused of sexual assault, it was out of scope to explore incident, accused and victim characteristics specifically among cases of sexual assaults perpetrated by a youth against another youth. Given that one‑third of sexual offences against children or youth were committed by another youth (Cotter and Beaupré 2014), further research on attrition between police and court would also benefit from focusing on youth‑against‑youth sexual assaults to examine how these cases are handled in the justice system. Further, because this study focused on the attrition between police and court, a disproportionate number of youth accused were dropped from the analysis because young offenders are less likely to be charged in the first place. In addition, sentencing outcomes for youth convicted of sexual assault or other sexual offences is another area that could be explored in further detail.

Finally, additional research on delay in reporting to police would offer a broader understanding of to what extent delayed reports of crimes may influence court outcomes for different criminal offences. Although increased delays in reporting also appeared to hinder retention rates and conviction outcomes for physical assaults, examining whether other violent and non‑violent offences are equally impacted by a delay in reporting would build on this new area of research.

Start of text box

Text box 7
Summary of characteristics that may contribute to sexual assault justice outcomes

Characteristics observed among cases with higher attrition and/or lower conviction rates:

  • Delay in reporting of the sexual assault to police
  • Incomplete or unknown information on the incident file
  • Took place on private property
  • No physical injury suffered by the victim
  • Female perpetrator
  • Youth accused aged 17 and younger (greater attrition, but higher conviction rates)
  • Child victims
  • Male victims
  • Accused was someone the victim knew, specifically a family member or a casual acquaintance
  • Child victims sexually assaulted by a parent
  • Large age gaps where the victim was significantly younger than their assailant

Characteristics observed among cases with lower attrition and/or higher conviction rates:

  • Sexual assaults classified by police as level 2 or 3
  • Reported to police on the same day the sexual assault took place
  • Complete information on the incident file
  • Presence of a weapon during the sexual assault
  • Victim suffered a physical injury
  • Child victim sexually assaulted by someone who met the age‑based criteria for pedophilia and was a stranger or a casual acquaintance
  • Older victims sexually assaulted by someone far younger than them
  • Victims sexually assaulted by a stranger or current or ex‑intimate partner in their peer age group (within five years)

Note that some of these characteristics may be co‑occurring or can have a compounding effect on attrition or conviction rates when two or more factors apply to the same case. Refer to the body of the article for more context.

End of text box

Survey description

Incident‑based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey

The Incident‑based Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey collects detailed information on criminal incidents that have been reported to and substantiated by Canadian police services. This information includes characteristics pertaining to incidents (e.g., weapon, location, delay in reporting), victims (e.g., age, sex, victim‑accused relationship, physical injury) and accused persons (e.g., age, sex, charge laid). Between 2009 and 2014, data from police services covered 99% of the population of Canada. Incidents are based on pooled UCR micro‑data for each individual year, and will not match data from CANSIM tables as these capture aggregate‑based data.

Integrated Criminal Court Survey

The objective of the Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) is to develop and maintain a national database of statistical information on appearances, charges, and cases in youth and adult criminal court. The survey is intended to be a census of pending and completed federal statute charges heard in provincial‑territorial and superior courts in Canada. Appeal courts, federal courts (e.g., Tax Court of Canada) and the Supreme Court of Canada are not covered by the survey. See the “Analytical approach: Court outcomes” section for information on how ICCS data was interpreted for this study.

Methodology: Record linkage

In order to follow sexual assaults through the justice system between police and court, a deterministic record linkage was undertaken to link Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey data on police‑reported sexual assault incidents between 2009 and 2014 to Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) data on outcomes of criminal court cases completed between 2009/2010 and 2014/2015. The same linkage steps were also applied to link physical assault incidents to court to offer a comparator for sexual assault outcomes.

The scope for the linkage included police‑reported incidents where sexual assault level 1, 2 or 3 was the most serious violation in the incident, and where the accused was not a company. Due to lack of personal identifiers on the court side in Quebec and Prince Edward Island required to identify unique offenders, these two provinces were excluded from the linkage. These exclusions represented 19% of sexual assault incidents and 19% of physical assault incidents. Incidents with more than one accused were excluded at the outset because of analytical issues introduced when analyzing the characteristics of multiple accused within the same criminal incident (exclusions represent 5% of sexual assaults and 14% of physical assaults). Overall, after exclusions within police data, in‑scope sexual assault incidents represented 80% (93,501) of the 117,238 total sexual assaults reported by police in Canada between 2009 and 2014. The corresponding figure was 76% for physical assaults (885,847 out of 1,167,777).

In order to infer the linkage rate to court (the inverse of the attrition rate), in‑scope police‑reported incidents were then reduced to those with an accused identified in connection with the incident, followed by those with charge laid. Of the 93,501 sexual assault incidents that were in‑scope for linkage to court, 59% (55,077) had an accused identified by police in connection with the incident. A criminal charge was laid in three‑quarters (74%) of these incidents. Overall, this meant that 43% (40,490 out of 93,501) of sexual assault incidents resulted in a charge being laid, while 41% were not cleared (no accused identified), and the remaining 16% of incidents had an accused identified but the incident was cleared otherwise. The corresponding figures for physical assault were: 75% (663,552 out of 885,847) had an accused identified; a criminal charge was laid in 68% of these incidents; and subsequently, 51% (452,745 out of 885,847) overall resulted in a charge laid.

To link charged incidents from the UCR to court records from the ICCS, accused were matched by personal and incident identifiers including accused soundex (an algorithm that encodes names for confidentiality reasons), date of birth of the accused, sex of the accused, the province where the incident was reported to police, and the date of the offence. Court outcomes from both adult and youth court were included in the linkage. Court data exclude information from superior courts in Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as municipal courts in Quebec. These data are not available for extraction from the provinces’ electronic reporting systems and therefore, are not presently reported to the ICCS. This is currently the case for all criminal court‑related publications utilizing ICCS data. This exclusion is estimated to represent at most 2% of all sexual assaults in‑scope for linkage and 0.1% of all in‑scope physical assault incidents. These estimates were derived by applying the proportion of incidents that went to superior court among provinces that report superior court information to those that do not. Nunavut was excluded from this estimation as there is one single level of court (unified trial court) in that territory. Overall, this means that if superior court data were available in all provinces that were in‑scope for linkage, it is estimated that the linkage rate from police charge to court would increase from 49% to (at most) 51% for sexual assault incidents, and increase by less than 1% and remain 75% for physical assault incidents.

In the present study, ‘going to court’ is used as a simplified term for ease of comprehension purposes, and represents sexual assault incidents reported by police between 2009 and 2014 that linked to at least one charge in a court case that was completed between 2009/2010 and 2014/2015. Given that the median length of court case processing time for sexual assault cases is about double that of physical assault cases (Maxwell 2017; Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs 2017), it is possible that the linkage rate may be biased for sexual assaults that were in court towards 2014/2015 if they take longer to complete than physical assaults. To check for this, the linkage rate was analyzed by year. As may be expected, incidents reported by police in the last year of study (2014) had a notably lower linkage rate (21% for sexual assaults; 52% for physical assaults) than all other years given the narrow period of time in which a court case could be completed to be included in the study. If police incidents reported in 2014 and court cases completed in 2014/2015 were excluded, the linkage rate would increase from 49% to 54% for sexual assaults and from 75% to 80% for physical assaults. While these figures show an increase in the linkage rate by a few percentage points, the gap between sexual and physical assault remains the same. This suggests that although incidents reported in 2014 have a lower linkage rate, no notable bias in the linkage rate for the last year of study was detected specifically for sexual assaults when compared with physical assaults. For this reason, and to preserve the maximum number of linked cases when conducting more granular analyses at the characteristics‑level, this study retained all six years of data from police and court for the linkage.

After removing incidents that were out of scope as well as duplicate records and potentially false or bad links, the final linkage rates from police‑reported incidents with a charge laid to completed court cases was 49% (19,806 out of 40,490) for sexual assault incidents and 75% (341,101 out of 452,745) for physical assault incidents.

As with any record linkage undertaking, linkage results are subject to false negative linkage issues where incidents may not have linked due to data quality issues in administrative data (e.g., incorrect birthdates or inconsistent personal identifiers used for the same accused). Consequently, in combination with other methodological considerations explained above, the linkage rate from police to court may be an underestimation, and in turn, the attrition rate may be an overestimation.

Analytical approach: Court outcomes

When a criminal case is heard in Canadian criminal court, it can have many different offences charged within the same case. A case combines all charges against the same person having one or more key overlapping dates (date of offence, date of initiation, date of first appearance, or date of decision) into a single case. Having multiple different charges within a case introduces a challenge in analyzing linked court outcomes of sexual assaults charged by police because it is not a one‑to‑one relationship. For example, of the completed court cases linked from a single police‑reported sexual assault incident, there was an average of 13 charges per court case. These were typically not all charges for sexual assault‑related offences, rather, they were often unrelated charges associated with other incidents the accused had been involved in that were outside of the scope of the linkage at the police level, or were other charges introduced by the Crown.

In order to accurately present court outcomes of the linkage and align with best practices for analysis of Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) data, all sequential charges within a court case—not only those that were linked to the police‑reported sexual assault—were required. Once the linkage identified which court cases had at least one charge within the case had linked directly from a police‑charged sexual assault incident on the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey, a subsequent ICCS case‑to‑charge linkage was undertaken to pull off all sequential charges for the linked court cases. Doing so resulted in a duplication of some court charge information wherein the same court charge had linked back to not only the sexual assault, but an additional unrelated UCR incident (frequency of 11% for sexual assault linkage and 3% for physical assault linkage). An unduplication exercise was then undertaken to force a one‑to‑one relationship between every UCR incident (whether related to sexual assault or not) and each ICCS court charge. Incidents were prioritized by the target offence (sexual assault or physical assault for each respective linkage file first), followed by the complexity of the offences (multiple violations on the same incident), the seriousness of the offence, then the date of the offence, among other prioritization rules designed to retain the most relevant incident related to sexual assault.

After adding all sequential court charges and cleaning the data, the most serious offence in the case method was used as the primary method to measure court case outcomes. On the ICCS, a case that involves more than one charge is represented by the most serious offence, which is selected according to the following rules: First, court decisions are considered and the charge with the most serious decision is selected. Decisions are ranked from most serious to least serious as follows: 1) guilty; 2) guilty of a lesser offence; 3) acquitted; 4) stay of proceeding; 5) withdrawn, dismissed or discharged; 6) not criminally responsible; 7) other; and 8) transfer of court jurisdiction.

Second, in cases where two or more criminal charges resulted in the same most serious decision (e.g., both found guilty), then Criminal Code sentences were considered. Charges were classified according to an offence seriousness scale, which is based on actual sentences handed down by courts in Canada. Each offence is ranked by looking at: 1) the proportion of guilty charges where custody was imposed; and 2) the average (mean) length of custody for the specific type of offence. These values were multiplied together to arrive at the final seriousness ranking for each type of offence. If two charges remained tied according to this criterion, information about the sentence type and length was then considered (e.g., custody and length of custody, probation and length of probation).

In order to increase the relevance of the most serious offence in the case method specifically for sexual assaults, a subset of court cases where at least one charge within the case was specifically for sexual assault level 1, 2 or 3 was derived. These cases represented 84% of all court cases within the sexual assault linkage and 96% of cases within the physical assault linkage.

For analysis involving court outcomes by incident, victim, or accused characteristics, a separate subset was created to ensure that the outcome of the most serious offence in the case method reflected a court charge that linked back to a sexual assault incident from the UCR. Recall that after retrieving all sequential court charges in the linked court cases, some had been associated with police incidents unrelated to a sexual assault. Evidently, analyzing outcomes of court cases in relation to incident characteristics such as location type or delay in reporting, for example, would be confounded with other types of incidents if the associated incident was not a sexual assault incident. Thus analysis of the most serious offence by charge in a court case (irrespective of what the court charge was for) by incident, victim or accused characteristics was limited to those that linked back to a police‑reported sexual assault. These exclusions represented 15% of court cases within the sexual assault linkage and 16% of cases within the physical assault linkage.

Standard subsets for analysis of victim characteristics were created where necessary, such as filtering to incidents with only one victim and a complete victim record. Limiting incidents to those with one victim per incident was necessary in order to avoid confounding the characteristics of two or more victims. The single victim subset was also applied when analyzing victim variables in relation to the accused such as the nature of the relationship between the victim and the accused, as well as the age gap between them. Age‑based analytical subsets were also created for victim and/or accused‑based analysis where applicable, and required excluding incidents with invalid victim ages (missing or aged 90 and older for data quality reasons), as well as for accused (missing, aged under 12, or aged 90 and older).

Key concepts and definitions

Acquittal (at the court level): requires that a trial took place and a verdict of not guilty was reached for all the charges presented before the court.

Age gap: the age difference (in years) between the victim and their assailant at the time of the sexual or physical assault incident. Includes incidents where a charge was laid on the accused.

Attrition: the proportion of criminal incidents that ‘dropped out’ of the criminal justice system at a given level, most commonly defined in this study as the percentage of incidents charged by police that did not turn up in a court case completed within the reference period. The attrition rate can also be defined as the inverse of the ‘linkage rate’, or the inverse of the rate of retention of cases in the criminal justice system. Attrition can also be measured using a broader scope, such as by global attrition (the percentage of incidents reported by police, irrespective of whether they were cleared or whether an accused was identified or charged, that were not found in a court case completed within the reference period).

Casual acquaintance: a social relationship between the victim and the accused which is neither long‑term nor close and can include acquaintances known by sight only.

Census metropolitan area (CMA): consists of one or more neighbouring municipalities situated around a major urban core. A CMA must have a total population of at least 100,000 of which 50,000 or more live in the urban core. To be included in the CMA, other adjacent municipalities must have a high degree of integration with the central urban area, as measured by commuting flows derived from census data. A CMA typically comprises more than one police service.

Charged by police: criminal incidents that were either charged or recommended to be charged by police as reported to the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, or where a charge was laid by the Crown in provinces where the Crown is responsible for laying a charge (British Columbia, Quebec, and New Brunswick). An incident identified as ‘charged by police’ in this study reflects the clearance code assigned by police to the incident; however, once the incident information is relayed to the courts, the Crown reserves the right to deny and dismiss the charge, which means that the incident was not formally charged. Data on Crown acceptance or denial of charges recommended by police is not available from police‑reported data.

Child victim: contrary to other Juristat articles, this report defines child victims as those aged 13 and younger at the time of the criminal incident in order to align with the definition of pedophilia which is used to characterize certain sexual assaults against children aged 13 and younger also analyzed in this report.

Delay in reporting: defined by the time (in days) elapsed between the date a criminal incident is known or believed to have occurred and the date the incident was formally reported to police, whether by the victim, a friend or family member of the victim, or a third party. In this study, a ‘delayed report’ includes any incident that was reported to police at least one day after it took place (and was substantiated/declared ‘founded’ by police).

Family member: includes parents (natural father or mother, legal guardian, or step‑parent of the victim), other immediate family (natural brother or sister of the victim or step/half/foster/adopted sibling), and any extended family related to the victim either by blood or by marriage (e.g., grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sister/brother‑in‑law, parents‑in‑law, etc.). Spouses of the victim are excluded from family members for the purposes of this Juristat article and are captured under ‘intimate relationship’.

Guilty (at the court level): guilty decisions rendered for cases completed in court including guilty of the offence, of an included offence, of an attempt of the offence, or of an attempt of an included offence. Also includes guilty pleas, and cases where an absolute or conditional discharge has been imposed.

Hybrid offences: crimes that can be processed as either summary or indictable offences. These can include sexual assault level 1, child pornography, sexual violations against children and some firearms offences, where the offence is “deemed indictable unless and until the Crown has elected to proceed summarily” (R. v. Dudley 2009).

Indictable offence: generally include more serious crimes (such as level 2 and level 3 sexual assault) that carry greater maximum penalties and involve more complex court procedures (such as preliminary hearings and juries).

Intimate relationship: a close or previously close relationship between the victim and the accused defined by a sexual relationship or mutual sexual attraction. This can include a spouse (married or common‑law) or ex‑spouse (separated or divorced) of the victim, current or ex‑boyfriend or girlfriend of the victim, or any other intimate relationship type including ‘one‑night stands’ or otherwise a person with whom the victim had a brief sexual relationship with. Applies to any sexual orientation.

Long‑term sexual assault: defined in this report as sexual assaults that were reported by police as having begun on a given date (first incident date) and continued for longer than a one‑week period (i.e., the last incident date must be at least 8 days after the first incident date). These sexual assault incidents are contrasted with isolated incidents, which are reported by police to have only one associated incident date. Long‑term sexual assaults are not necessarily a measure of repeat victimization or offending, as a new incident for the same victim and/or accused may be entered by police if the circumstances or nature of the incident change.

Major physical injuries: physical injuries to the victim at the time of the incident or as determined through police investigation that were more than ‘trifling’ or ‘transient’ in nature and required professional medical treatment or immediate transportation to a medical facility. This is reported by police to the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey and does not necessarily reflect evidence of physical injury that may have been presented in court.

Minor physical injuries: physical injuries to the victim at the time of the incident or as determined through police investigation that did not require professional medical treatment or only some first‑aid (e.g., band‑aid, ice, etc.). This is reported by police to the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey and does not necessarily reflect evidence of physical injury that may have been presented in court.

Most serious decision in a case (at the court level): based on the court charge in a given case with the most serious verdict assigned. Court decisions for each charge in a case are ranked from most to least serious as follows: 1) guilty; 2) guilty of a lesser offence; 3) acquitted; 4) stay of proceeding; 5) withdrawn; dismissed or discharged; 6) not criminally responsible; 7) other; and 8) transfer of court jurisdiction. For example, if there are six criminal charges in a court case and at least one of them is assigned a guilty verdict, then the most serious decision in that case would be guilty.

Most serious offence in a case (at the court level): represents a court case that has more than one charge. The most serious offence in a case is selected by: 1) the charge with the most serious decision in the case (see above); and then by 2) the charge with the most serious offence type according to an offence seriousness scale which is based on sentencing information, specifically, the proportion of custody sentences imposed and the average length of custody sentences. If, after looking at the offence seriousness scale, two or more charges remain tied then information about the sentence type and duration of the sentence are considered (e.g., custody and length of custody, then probation and length of probation, etc.).

Most serious sentence in a case (at the court level): based on the sentence imposed by the courts on a guilty charge. In cases where several charges in a case are found guilty, additional criteria are applied to select a single charge to represent the case. If the ‘most serious offence’ is associated with several sentences, a ranking is applied to the types of sentences to determine which is the most serious, beginning with custody sentences.

Most serious violation in the incident (at the police level): determined by police based on a number of classification rules regarding the seriousness of the offence. Because one incident can involve multiple (up to four) criminal offences, the most serious violation is often used to represent the incident. Classification rules take into account whether or not the offence was violent, the maximum penalty imposed by the Criminal Code, whether the incident involved a homicide violation (which would always take precedence over other violations with the same maximum penalty), and the discretion of the police department. The most serious violation in the incident is not the same thing as the most serious violation against the victim, which identifies the most serious violation committed against an individual person.

Pedophile group: represents police‑reported sexual assault incidents charged by police involving an accused who may meet some of the clinical criteria for pedophilia as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM‑5) based on the age of the accused, the age of their victim, and the fact that the criminal offence was sexual in nature. The clinical diagnosis of pedophilia requires: 1) intense and recurrent sexual urges towards and fantasies about prepubescent children that have either been acted upon or which caused the person with the attraction distress or interpersonal difficulty; and that 2) the person diagnosed be at least 16 years old, and at least five years older than the child aged 13 or younger (American Psychiatric Association 2013). While police‑reported data does not contain information on such clinical diagnoses, the fact that the offence was reported as sexual assault by police is used to infer that an act of a sexual nature took place. However, this does not mean that the accused would definitively meet the clinical criteria for pedophilia, as they may not have, for example, had intense and recurrent sexual urges towards prepubescent children. The pedophile group used in this Juristat article is thus defined as persons charged with sexual assault who were 16 years of age or older at the time of the incident, with a victim who was 13 years of age or younger, and there was at least a five year age difference between them. This grouping does not represent an actual diagnosis of pedophilia by a medical professional, but rather an age‑based grouping using accused and victim information which may suggest, given the sexual nature of the offence, that the accused may meet part of the criteria for pedophilia.

Peer age group: represents police‑reported sexual or physical assault incidents where the victim and the accused were within five years in age of each other (whether older or younger), and the incident did not meet the criteria for the pedophile group.

Physical assault: refers to three levels of physical assault detailed in the Criminal Code, which include the following categories:

Sexual assault: ranges from unwanted sexual touching to sexual violence resulting in serious physical injury or disfigurement to the victim in the following categories as per the Criminal Code (see also Text box 1):

Single accused: police‑reported criminal incidents where there was only one person who was accused in a given incident. Incidents with more than one accused are excluded from any analysis of accused characteristics in order to avoid the methodological issue of confounding accused characteristics for incidents with multiple accused.

Single victim: police‑reported criminal incidents where there was only one victim present in a given incident. Incidents with more than one victim are excluded from any analysis of victim characteristics in order to avoid the methodological issue of confounding victim characteristics for incidents with multiple victims.

Stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged (at the court level): these decisions refer to the court either putting the charges against the accused on hold or discontinuing criminal proceedings against the accused (including due to unreasonable delays in hearing the case). As a result, a trial was either not held or partially held. Includes stays, court referrals to alternative or extrajudicial measures and restorative justice programs, withdrawals, dismissals and discharges at preliminary inquiry.

Summary conviction offences: generally includes less serious crimes such as mischief or petty theft, however it may include sexual assault level 1 in some circumstances. Summary offences are heard by provincial court judges and carry lower maximum sentences.

Unfounded: incidents reported to police where it was determined through investigation by police that no violation of the law took place. These incidents are not captured among crimes reported by police to the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey. For more information, see Text box 2.

Detailed data tables

Table 1 Attrition and retention rates of sexual assault incidents, between police charge and completed court case, by selected incident characteristics, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Table 2 Case decision outcomes for sexual assaults charged by police that went to adult or youth court, by selected incident characteristics, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Table 3 Selected sentencing outcomes of police‑reported sexual assaults that were convicted in adult criminal court, by selected incident characteristics, Canada, 2009 to 2014

Appendix

Daily Charts

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