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'Defund the police' movement could offer sexual assault survivors a different path for justice, experts say

Reclaimed police funds could be distributed to shelters, rape crisis centers, mental health services and programs to combat sexual violence, experts say.
Illustration of a victim advocate speaking to a victim, outside the frame is a jail scene with silhouettes of men.
Experts say reclaimed police funds could be used for services that have a proven record of helping survivors with support and healing.Eleni Kalorkoti / for NBC News

If calls to “defund the police” and divert funds to nonpolicing efforts are successful, what happens to rapists and sex offenders?

It’s a decades-old question that Aishah Shahidah Simmons has fielded for more than 25 years during her work as an activist against sexual violence and a documentary filmmaker on sexual assault against Black women.

“The assumption is that policing will stop or prevent sexual violence,” said Simmons, who is also the editor of this year’s Lambda award-winning anthology, “love WITH accountability.” “There is documented evidence that it does not.”

“So why do we rely on the police as the only solution to sexual assault?”

Amid the national protests about racial injustice and policing, the once-extreme demand to “defund the police” has gained traction, with Minneapolis taking steps to remake its police department and other cities, like New York City, pledging to shift some funding away from the police and instead use that money for social services.

Some scholars, activists and lawyers who work on behalf of sexual assault victims are encouraged by “defund the police” efforts, telling NBC News that the existing criminal justice system has failed to address the economic, sociopolitical and mental health factors that often correlate with sexual violence. As a society, experts say, there is an overall lack of education to help unpack issues such as a rape culture, consent and body autonomy — and too seldom are people actually held accountable for their wrongdoings.

The country has reached an inflection point where police and prisons aren’t seen as de facto solutions for issues they’re often unqualified or inadequate to handle, the experts say.

And if the old system isn’t working, they say, it’s worth trying something different.

“Our culture doesnt take sexual violence seriously and has failed to prioritize the rights, wants and needs of survivors,” said Judith Levine, the co-author of “The Feminist and the Sex Offender,” which explores the criminal justice system and its treatment of sex offenders.

“The criminal legal system often exacerbates and diminishes the harm survivors have already experienced,” she said. When race, class, gender or sexuality are taken into account, those effects are even more pronounced, particularly for Black and indigenous women.

Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults in the United States, only 230 are reported to the police, nine cases get referred to prosecutors, and five will result in a prison sentence, according to RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. This means that more than three-quarters of sexual assaults go unreported to the police. And while there are many reasons why a survivor will choose not to report, the second most cited, after a fear of retaliation, was that survivors believed police wouldn’t do anything to help.

Statistics support those concerns.

A study funded by the National Institute of Justice found that only 18 percent of reported sexual assault cases lead to arrests. Investigative lapses have contributed to the low arrest rate. For years until 2015, tens of thousands of evidence kits — commonly known as a rape kit that could lead police to serial rapists — collected dust and went untested at law enforcement agencies.

A 2018 sexual assault response assessment in Texas revealed that two-thirds of police received little to no training on how to read rape kit reports. An officer is quoted in the report saying: “I have to Google stuff like ‘labia majora.’”

Cassandra Mensah, a lawyer who represents survivors of domestic violence, says by and large, prosecutors only take cases they can win, and when charges are filed, the court will often drop or reduce felony rape charges for guilty pleas on other crimes.

If a case makes it to trial, months and years will likely pass before a verdict is reached, without the offender ever admitting his actions were rape, she said. The accused will seldom be found guilty. And survivors are left without a modicum of justice.

“If the case ever reaches trial, there’s a lot of questions that are lodged during cross-examination that is akin to revictimization, diminishing, victim shaming and blaming sexual assault survivors,” said Erica Meiners, a professor of education and women’s and gender studies at Northeastern Illinois University and co-author, with Levine, of “The Feminist and the Sex Offender.”

Instead of being used for policing, experts say reclaimed police funds could be distributed to family and domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, mental health counseling and anti-sexual violence education programs — underfunded services that have a proven record of helping survivors with support and healing.

“Defunding and abolishing the police offers an opportunity to rethink how we support sexual assault survivors without replicating or exacerbating the damage from our existing system,” said Ejeris Dixon, executive director at Vision Change Win Consulting, a Black-led, queer and trans social justice organization.

“Change will be incremental, and there isn’t an all-encompassing solution,” Terri Poore, policy director at the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said. “We need to change rape culture into a culture of accountability.”

Community-driven responses to sexual violence like transformative justice offer some insight on how that might come to fruition. While there is no single definition, transformative justice could be broadly defined as a “framework that doesn’t depend on solving violence with another form of violence,” Johonna Turner, an assistant professor of restorative justice and peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, said.

It doesn’t rely on intervention from the state, including police, prisons or the criminal legal system. Instead, it builds community-led networks largely for people who have been disproportionately targeted or killed by the police: communities of color, poor and low-income communities, people with disabilities, sex workers, and queer and trans communities.

“Prisons condition people into doing more violence and do not address the root causes of the issue,” Turner said. “How do we actually prevent people from enacting more violence and help them transform?”

What survivors need from community-led infrastructure varies greatly case by case, Turner said. Some have built a network of safe houses that those in danger can use. Others have a group of community members who are skilled at de-escalating violence.

In some cases, people who perpetrate sexual violence are provided education and counseling to learn how to change dominant notions of masculinity and violence — a practice that, like calls to “defund the police,” was once seen as a fringe position that grants too much clemency toward harmdoers.

But transformative justice has seen a resurgence in this current political moment as people turn to alternative paths that don’t rely on punitive measures, according to Mimi Kim, the executive director of Creative Interventions and a co-founder of INCITE! — organizations dedicated to ending violence of all forms, particularly against women of color.

While transformative justice models have existed for several decades, Kim said in an email, many organizations were heavily underresourced, do not have enough funding to conduct their own research about cutting down sexual abuse cases, and were forced to close down.

Experts say transformative justice isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution; rather, it molds itself to the needs and wants of survivors and implements tangible community accountability steps to prevent and end sexual violence.

“Shifting some of the money from policing to cultural, community projects and education that addresses sexual violence could help prevent it from happening in the first place,” Turner said.

Like other practitioners, Turner said that transformative justice isn’t for everyone. The last thing she wants is to deny survivors the chance to report their assaults to the police, if they believe that is part of how they want to pursue justice; they have to participate willingly, without coercion.

The practice is meant to offer more than one path for survivors to express their agency, if they would like to seek healing and safety outside of police and prisons.

“We’re living at a time where we’re willing to question what’s come before, and what hasn’t been working, without really knowing what exactly is coming next,” Poore said.

“We don’t have all the answers yet, but I know that we need to imagine something better.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual violence, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline by calling 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), visit the lifeline crisis chat at, or find your local rape crisis center at