Q: What has Reform of Rape Legislation Wrought? A: Truth in Criminal Labelling


University of Washington Law School, Seattle, Washington 98195.


This article compares the impact of common law and reform rape legislation on prosecution, based on an analysis of 445 forcible and statutory rape cases in King County, Washington. In both types of cases, reform of the legal definition of rape resulted in (1) no change in the overall rates of convictions and pleas, although the new gradations of the crime led to more convictions and pleas labelled “rape” rather than some surrogate offense (e.g., assault), and (2) no change in the overall rate of charging, because the decision-making criteria used by prosecutors at their discretion have remained the same under both statutory schemes. Reform of the penalties for rape, adapted to the degrees of culpability, resulted in more certain but not necessarily more severe punishment, an outcome embraced by general deterrence theory. The conclusion is that the main impact of the statutory reform has been a symbolic and educative one for society at large, rather than an instrumental one for law enforcement. Implications are drawn from the results for the reformulation of rape law in terms of a well-reasoned principle of nonconsent, and for administrative policy in rape prosecutions based upon standards for the exercise of charging discretion.