Justice Department Redefines Rape

The Justice Department is redefining the criminal definition of "rape" for the first time since the 1920s. It will now include same-sex assaults and a definition beyond actual intercourse. This will change the way local police departments report crime statistics.

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For the first time in more than 80 years, the Justice Department has expanded the definition of rape that's used for nationwide crime reports. The new definition includes men and boys who are victims of sexual violence. Also, people who can't give consent because they're incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.

NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson explains.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The last time the FBI came up with a definition of rape for its report card on serious crime, America was leaving the roaring '20s and about to enter the Great Depression.

Here's how the country thought of rape in those days.

SUSAN CARBON: As, as this is a very narrow definition, the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.

JOHNSON: That's current day Justice Department official Susan Carbon. She points out that old definition limited rape to actions against women by men. It didn't consider whether victims had been rendered defenseless with liquor or date rape drugs and it required women to fight back for the assault to be called rape.

Pretty much everybody in law enforcement agreed that definition was a real problem a long time ago, but inertia exerted a powerful force until senior figures in the Obama administration led by Vice President Joseph Biden decided the time had finally arrived for an updated.

Valerie Jarrett is senior advisor to President Obama.

VALERIE JARRETT: This major policy change will lead to more accurate reporting and far more comprehensive understanding of this devastating crime.

JOHNSON: People in the White House pushed the FBI to follow the lead of many states that already use an expanded definition of rape. Scott Berkowitz runs a nonprofit group that helps survivors of sexual violence.

SCOTT BERKOWITZ: The FBI's new definition of rape comes much closer to reflecting the reality of the crime. It happens to men and women, young and old, but in every case, it's an incredibly violent crime and we owe it to victims to acknowledge and count every one, as the FBI is now going to do.

JOHNSON: Under the old definition, the FBI says, states and local police reported almost 85,000 rapes in 2010, but those are vast underestimates, says White House advisor Lynn Rosenthal.

LYNN ROSENTHAL: When victims are suffering so greatly, but they're invisible in our national crime data, it limits our ability to fully understand the extent of the problem.

JOHNSON: Or, Rosenthal says, to send federal grant money and counseling resources to the places in the U.S. that need them most.

It could take a while for all of the new figures to appear in the FBI's report card, says the FBI's David Cuthbertson.

DAVID CUTHBERTSON: If you can imagine 18,000 law enforcement agencies have 18,000 different ways that they manage their records and their data.

JOHNSON: He says the FBI will work with local police to make sure the changes show up over the next couple of years.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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