Despite an overall decline in crime statewide last year, the number of rapes reported to law enforcement in Maine climbed to its highest point in recent memory, according to statistics released Thursday.
There were 448 reported rapes in Maine in 2017, up from 383 the year before — a 17 percent increase — according to data that every law enforcement agency in the state collects and reports to the FBI.
The figure is the state’s highest single-year total for rape since at least 1994, the earliest year for which data is readily available, and the first time the figure broke the 400 mark. The data do not indicate how many of the reported rapes occurred prior to 2017. Nine of the reports were for attempted rape.
Maine’s data mirror recent national trends of declining overall crime and increasing reports of rape. The rise in rape reports may be attributable in part to increased reporting of the crimes by victims who feel more empowered to come forward amid the ongoing national conversation about sexual harassment and sex assault.
The state’s leading anti-sexual assault advocacy group cautiously attributed the increase of reported rapes to the #MeToo movement, which has sparked untold numbers of women to come forward and publicly describe their stories of pervasive sexual harassment and assault that has been underreported for generations.
“Since the #MeToo movement was reignited a year ago, more people have felt compelled to tell their stories than ever before,” said Cara Courchesne, communications director at the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “The annual Crime in Maine numbers are important, and they represent significant trauma perpetrated against Mainers. And yet, we know this is barely the tip of the iceberg.”
The rate at which police agencies charged people accused of rape or closed the cases through other means — generally referred to as a clearance rate — remained almost steady between 2016 and 2017, at 36.8 percent and 35.2 percent, respectively.
Overall, 484 rapes were reported last year, but police categorized 36 reported rapes or attempted rapes as unfounded, meaning nearly 93 percent of the total reported rapes were credible enough for law enforcement to pursue.
The government’s definition of rape has been updated to reflect a modern understanding of the crime. Before 2013, the FBI called the offense “forcible rape,” and defined it as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will,” excluding the possibility that men could be victims.
The current definition discards “forcible” and provides a more encompassing, gender-neutral definition as penetration of another person by any object or body part without consent of the victim.
The Muskie School of Public Service, working with data gathered from a Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault survey, estimates that 14,000 Mainers experience sexual assault annually, in line with national research by the Department of Justice that shows sexual assault is estimated to be the most under-reported violent crime.
Other categories of crime that increased in the latest data were simple assault and motor vehicle thefts, both of which nudged 2.2 percent higher than the previous year.
Murders also increased from 18 in 2016 to 21 last year, according to a summary of the new numbers.
Overall, however, year-over-year, crime in Maine is down nearly 47 percent in the past six years, and Maine remains among the safest states in the nation.
Maine continues to have the lowest per-capita crime rate in New England, according to the national data, a success that the state’s top public safety official said was the product of years of collaboration and hard work.
“The positive numbers are a team effort by law enforcement, prosecutors, the courts and advocacy groups,” Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said in a statement announcing the new numbers. “Six years of decreasing crime stats in Maine is unprecedented. However, drugs are still connected to much of the state’s crime.”
All other categories of crime decreased in 2017, both in cities and rural areas.
There were double-digit reductions in burglary, at 16.9 percent lower that in 2016. Aggravated assault was at 12.7 percent lower, domestic violence assaults decreased 10.6 percent and arsons dropped 35 percent.
The decline was more prevalent in rural areas, where police and sheriff’s departments saw 9.3 percent fewer crimes. In cities and towns the drop was 7.9 percent from 2018.
Only Franklin, Sagadahoc and Androscoggin counties saw increases in their crime rates from last year.
The largest of those increases was in Sagadahoc, where the crime rate jumped nearly 11 percent from 2016.
The statistics are tabulated annually and are reported to the FBI as part of the Uniform Crime Reporting program, which has tracked criminal activity in more than 18,000 communities nationwide since 1930.