Joyful Heart in the News

Wayne County must put safety of its communities first: Sarah Tofte

June 6, 2013
Detroit Free Press
Sarah Tofte

With Wednesday’s announcement that the State of Michigan may provide $4 million in funding to help test old rape kit evidence in Detroit, Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette made it clear that preventing and prosecuting sexual assaults in Detroit is a priority for Michigan’s leaders.

This tremendous news is tempered by the fact that last month, the Wayne County Commission, responding to a county fiscal crisis, upheld a $7-million cut to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office — essentially reducing the office by one-third of its resources.Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy faces a $7 million cut to her budget, which some advocates say will hurt her ability to investigate some 11,000 back-logged rape kits. / Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press

Unfortunately, Gov. Snyder’s funding announcement, which must be approved by the Legislature, while essential to advancing rape kit testing, does not fix the significant cuts to the office’s budget. By approving those cuts, the Wayne County Commission is gutting the offices of Prosecutor Kym Worthy, and endangering her efforts to address the county’s approach to rape cases so that more perpetrators are held to account and more survivors have access to justice.

In 2009, more than 11,000 untested sexual assault kits were discovered sitting in police storage facilities in the city. A rape kit is the DNA taken from a victim’s body in the immediate aftermath of the crime which, if tested, can identify an unknown offender, confirm the presence of a suspect, exonerate the innocent, affirm a victim’s version of events, discredit a suspect’s story, and connect crime scene evidence to serial rapists.

Faced with such a significant backlog of untested rape kits, Worthy applied for and received a grant from the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice. Under the grant, a group of multi-disciplinary stakeholders — of which I am a member — meet every two weeks to determine what caused the backlog of rape kits, and how to move forward.

As part of the grant program, we have been able to send 1,600 of the Detroit rape kits for testing and have DNA results back from 400.

From just those 400 rape kits, we have identified 30 serial rapists and matched rape kit evidence to offenders who went on to rape again in 11 states across the country. In short, Detroit’s rape kit backlog is, literally, of national concern for those who care about preventing sexual assault in their community.

In my experience, you need three elements to achieve comprehensive and lasting reform — political will, commitment and resources. Wayne County is the only jurisdiction I have worked directly with that has the first two, in spades. All they lack is the resources.

The state is now doing its part, but restored funding from the county is essential to ensure that justice comes swiftly for those rape survivors who have already waited far too long for their cases to be resolved. In the meantime, offenders will continue to go free to commit crimes.

Every other week, I sit in meetings with our team in Detroit, and hear about the incredible investigative leads we are gathering from rape kit testing, and the enthusiasm of the police and prosecutors to pursue those leads. The only thing stopping them is the money they need to do their jobs.

If $7 million makes the difference between whether an offender who commits rape is held accountable or let go, and whether a survivor has a chance to receive justice, it is worth it for us to raise our voices so that the county’s commissioners understand exactly what is at stake. If they cut this money, they need to be held to account by all of us who care about addressing and preventing sexual violence. 


Sarah Tofte is the director of policy & advocacy at the New York-based

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