Common Exceptions: Understanding the U.S. Legal System’s Differential Treatment of Sexual Violence Cases

31 August 2023, Version 1
This content is an early or alternative research output and has not been peer-reviewed at the time of posting.


Academics and activists have long decried the state’s poor legal treatment of sexual violence cases. However, literature has struggled to attribute this poor legal treatment to the decisions of state actors, rather than factors outside the state’s control. I present evidence that U.S. chief prosecutors dismiss sexual violence cases at substantively higher rates than commensurate violent crimes, despite sufficient legal evidence for prosecution and a collaborative victim. Given that most chief prosecutors are democratically elected, I theorize that public preferences drive this disproportionately high dismissal. I test this theory using a survey on public violent crime perceptions and a paired profile conjoint experiment. Contrary to expectations, I find respondents prefer to prosecute sexual violence cases at high rates relative to other violent crimes. This relationship holds both when I analyze direct questions about prosecution preferences and when I experimentally control for other variables that may influence prosecution allocation decisions.


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