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Joyful Heart in the News
End our backlog of rape kit processing
Every year, thousands of individuals take the courageous step of reporting their rape to the police. They overcome the social stigma of being the victim of sexual violence, the warnings sometimes uttered by the rapist to keep silent, the suggestions that these issues ought not to be spoken of; and they speak up. During a forensic exam of their bodies which can take between four and six hours evidence is collected in a “Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit” — a rape kit.
Experts estimate there are hundreds of thousands of rape kits sitting untested throughout the country. Over the past several years, this rape kit backlog has become a fixture in the national media, with reports of untested rape kits piling up in police and crime lab storage facilities across the nation.
Rape kit evidence is an invaluable investigative tool for a country that has struggled to respond adequately to sexual assault. When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant, affirm a survivor’s account of the attack, connect a suspect to other unsolved crimes and exonerate innocent suspects. And yet, hundreds of thousands of times, a decision is made not to process the evidence. Even when a member of law enforcement does send a kit for testing, it can sit unprocessed for months and, in some cases, years. Each untested kit represents a missed chance for justice for survivors and accountability for offenders.
Of all violent crimes in the country, rape has the lowest reporting, arrest and prosecution rates. According to FBI crime data, rape has a 24 percent arrest rate — the lowest in nearly 40 years of tracking such information. This means that a survivor of rape has a one-in-five chance of seeing the perpetrator brought to justice. It also means that a rapist is likely to get away with the crime and, in many cases, to rape again.
We have seen the difference that testing every rape kit makes. New York City cleared its backlog of 17,000 kits and now tests every kit booked into police evidence. Proof of the value of testing every kit: the city’s arrest rate for rape has jumped from 40 percent to 70 percent.
Detroit is another city that now faces the massive task of clearing its backlog — more than 11,000 untested kits. After a National Institute of Justice grant allowed the first 850 kits to be tested, 46 potential serial rapists were identified. From those first kits, prosecutors have already secured two convictions, and traced assailants to crimes in 12 additional states and the District of Columbia. Louisiana is one of those states. Had Detroit’s kits been tested after being taken into evidence, an attack might have been prevented in Louisiana. Clearly, one city’s backlog is a threat to public safety in all communities across the country.
Fortunately, the federal government is making the elimination of the nationwide rape kit backlog a priority. After President Obama’s request that Congress allocate dollars to reduce the backlog, both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have included $117 million for Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Reduction Grants in their FY2014 spending bills. The bills specifically instruct the Justice Department to prioritize rape kit testing.
This funding can make the difference between getting a violent offender off the street and letting him go free to harm again. Louisiana’s congressional delegation, led by Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, has an opportunity to support full funding for rape kit reform as the budget moves through Congress. On behalf of survivors who deserve justice, communities across the country are counting on their support.
We must eliminate this backlog. We must give survivors the justice they deserve and hold dangerous assailants accountable. The stakes are simply too high.