SMH: ‘Admitting guilt is difficult’ – How (NSW) sex crimes boss wants the justice system to change

NSW Police sex crimes boss Stacey Maloney has called for an overhaul of how sexual assault is treated in the criminal justice system, includingan easier online reporting option and reducing stigma attached to sexual offending so that peopleare more likely to admit guilt and apologise.

Buoyed by national conversations about sexual assault and a petition started by consent activist Chanel Contos, sexual assault reporting in NSW is up 54 per cent since Ms Maloney took up the top job in February.

Informal reporting through the Sexual Assault Reporting Option (SARO) form, which can be accessed online and was promoted by Detective Superintendent Maloney and Ms Contos when they launched NSW Police’s “Operation Vest” in late March, has increased by 43 per cent.

“We are very happy about that,” Ms Maloney said. “The more people that trust the police in terms of telling us their story … the better.”

But she also wants to “flip [the issue] on its head” and believes several reforms are needed to improve outcomes for sexual assault victim-survivors and offenders. She said community services need more resources, while social conversations about what sexual violence looks like must continue.

Recent reporting over the last few months [has] certainly elevated that significantly,” she said. “It’s important that we keep that moving, and we have these conversations and make changes where we can, particularly in the judicial process.”

First, she plans to overhaul SARO and make it a more contemporary, fully digitised service. It could sit with community agencies instead of the police in the future, and Ms Maloney intends to collaborate with academics in creating a best-practice informal reporting system that is victim-centred.

“We really want to make sure that when someone does report, that they do get that therapeutic opportunity as well,” she said.Advertisement

Ms Maloney became head of the child abuse and sex crimes squad on February 1, 14 days before Brittany Higgins went public with her allegations of sexual assault within Parliament House and 18 days before Ms Contos’ petition was first reported.

“It was quite confronting but I certainly think it demonstrated that there needed to be a lot of leadership around the issue. And, in some respects, permission to have courageous conversations,” she said.

“This has been just under the surface for so long and people have had enough, to be honest. It’s been really great to be able to voice what our position is.”

Ms Maloney wants “restorative justice” processes introduced for sexual assault in NSW, where the alleged victim, offender and anyone else affected are brought together to work out a resolution, often with the help of a third party.

“I think most victims want to hear: ‘I’m really sorry, I shouldn’t have made you feel that way or I shouldn’t have done that’,” Ms Maloney said.

But she says the status quo doesn’t offer that outcome: instead victim-survivors are usually faced with the choice between an often-gruelling court process or nothing.

“No-one is ever really going to say: ‘I’m sorry about that, I did it’. They’re always going to fight it,” Ms Maloney said.

“People admitting guilt to something is difficult. There is a huge stigma attached to someone who’s been convicted of a sexual violence offence. [The] community is quite happy to have more victims than sexual offenders.

“But at the end of the day, the vast majority [of sexual violence involves] poor behaviours that need to be modified so [that offenders] have an understanding [of what’s] not OK. How do you get to that, if we can’t have an honest conversation?”

This is where she believes a “negligent sexual assault” offence could be introduced, which is treated at a lower level in the local courts.

“[Sexual assault] is endemic, and it is in our community. We’re certainly not watering down the seriousness of it. But if we look at the data, we’re not getting anywhere: nothing’s being resolved, victims are still becoming victims, and offenders are still not understanding that the behaviour is not ok. That’s the reality of it,” she said.

Ms Maloney said recent Law Reform Commission proposals were a “good step in the right direction” but could go further by recommending an ‘affirmative consent’ model where consent has to be actively communicated. “I think there is a real opportunity,” she said.

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