5 stunning facts about American justice in Jon Krakauer's ‘Missoula’

Jon Krakauer’s best-selling exposé sheds light on rape in the United States.

Jon Krakauer's new book 'Missoula' accuses a Montana town of turning its back on victims of sexual assault.

In his stunning new book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, bestselling author Jon Krakauer mostly abandons his extraordinary storytelling powers. Instead, he largely relies on court transcripts, excerpts from academic research, and straightforward accounts of legal wrangling.
 
“Missoula” is all the more powerful because of Krakauer’s choice to mostly keep his opinions in check. Scathing and convincing, the book accuses a Montana town of turning its back on victims of sexual assault. It also implicates the American justice system itself by pointing out how Missoula isn’t unique.
 
Here are 5 stunning facts about American justice revealed in “Missoula”:
 
1. Almost all rapists go unpunished
 
“Rape is the most underreported serious crime in the nation,” Krakauer reports. “Carefully conducted studies consistently indicate that at least 80 percent of rapes are never disclosed to law enforcement agencies.”

That’s not all. Research suggests that “when an individual is raped in this country,” Krakauer writes, “more than 90 percent of the time the rapist gets away with the crime.”

Even convicted rapists often avoid severe punishment, at least in Montana. Under state law, convicted rapists could avoid prison if the attack didn’t cause “serious bodily injury.” Defendants in the Missoula area often avoided being sentenced to any time behind bars: Out of 67 men convicted of rape from 2001 to the early months of 2012, 21 received no jail or prison sentence.
 
 2. ‘Nice guy’ rapists don’t realize their crimes
 
A 2009 study of Navy recruits found that 13 percent were “undetected rapists”: They acknowledged they committed acts that qualify as rape, such as having sex with with someone who didn’t want to but was too intoxicated to resist. The victims didn’t report the rapes, and not a single one of the men believed he was a rapist.

“They share this common idea that a rapist is a guy in a ski mask, wielding a knife, who drags women into the bushes....” the researcher told Krakauer. In essence, they “harbor all the usual myths and misconceptions about rape” and believe “nice guys” like themselves don’t rape.
 
3. Discredited rape research won’t vanish
 
According to the father of an alleged victim, the Missoula police chief believed that about 50 percent of rape claims are false. The police chief reportedly referred to a 2009 article that refers to two studies from the 1980s and 1990s.

In fact, Krakauer reports, “scholars have debunked” both studies. Even so, the findings are “still routinely cited on numerous websites dedicated to advancing the notion that American society suffers from an epidemic of spurious rape allegations by malicious women, resulting in the wrongful conviction of many thousands of innocent men.”

A 2010 analysis of existing research suggests that the actual percentage of false rape claims is 2-10 percent.
 
4. Universities are tougher on rape than courts
 
Much of “Missoula” is devoted to examining the obscure justice system inside the University of Montana that decides whether accused rapists should be expelled. Countless universities and colleges run similar internal justice systems that require alleged victims to testify and face cross-examination in front of peers and university employees like professors and officials.

As of 2011, Krakauer reports, all American colleges and universities are required to use a “‘preponderance of evidence’ standard in sexual assault cases, rather than the ‘clear and convincing evidence’ standard that most universities were using at the time, or the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard used in the criminal justice system.”

This means that schools can expel students if  most evidence – more than 50 percent – supports their guilt.
 
5. Missoula is hardly a ‘rape capital’
 
Krakauer uncovers massive problems in the Missoula region’s approach to sexual assault cases, and even the local county’s prosecutor – accused herself of misconduct in “Missoula” – acknowledges the need for reform. “We listened, we changed, and we are starting to make ripples, the beginnings of a current,” she declared in a statement earlier this spring. For his part, Krakauer is not impressed.

One thing is certain: Missoula’s difficulties are not unique. In fact, Krakauer reports that far from being the “rape capital” of the US, Missoula rate of reported sexual assaults is a a bit lower than towns of its size. How many reported assaults? A total of 350 from January 2008-May 2012 in a city of 69,000.

In Krakauer’s stark words, “that’s the real scandal.”

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Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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