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Joyful Heart in the News
Why rapists have a 76 percent chance of getting away with the crime
Every year, thousands of individuals take the courageous step of reporting their rape to the police. They overcome the terrible, misplaced social stigma of being the victim of sexual violence, they overcome the warnings sometimes uttered by the rapist to keep silent, they overcome the suggestions that these issues ought not to be spoken of, and they speak up. The forensic exam of their bodies, the crime scene, typically takes four to six hours. The evidence is then 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 coming from multiple cities and municipalities of untested rape kits piling up in police and crime lab storage facilities. Each kit represents a missed opportunity for justice.
We know rape kit evidence is an invaluable investigative tool for a country – with an anemic 24% arrest rate for rape – that still struggles to respond adequately to sexual assault. In 2012, 1,264 rapes were reported in Alabama, a 10% decrease from 2011. Only 307 persons were arrested for rape.
When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant, confirm the presence of a known suspect, affirm a survivor's account of the attack, connect a suspect to other unsolved crimes, and exonerate innocent suspects. If testing kits represents a chance for justice for survivors and accountability for offenders, not testing kits represents the opposite.
What we don´t know is how many untested rape kits reside in each state. In 2010, an investigation by CBS News found more than 2,100 rape kits in police storage facilities in Birmingham, and several hundred untested rape kits waiting for testing at the state crime lab. The lack of information does not mean there are not other cities in Alabama that have untested rape kits – it is a consequence of the poor job nearly every state does in tracking its rape kit evidence, and the resistance to making public the number of rape kits booked into police evidence versus the number of rape kits sent to the crime lab for testing. In fact, only Illinois, Texas and Colorado have state laws requiring the tracking and testing of every rape kit in police storage.
Regardless of what we know about Alabama, we do know that rape kit backlogs in other cities and states directly impact the safety of those in your state.
In 2009, the Wayne County (Detroit) Prosecutor demanded access to the storage facility of the city's recently defunct DNA crime laboratory. What she found was astounding – more than 11,000 untested rape kits. After a National Institute of Justice grant allowed the first 500 kits to be tested, 32 potential serial rapists were identified. From those first kits, prosecutors have already secured two convictions, and traced assailants to assaults in 11 additional states and the District of Columbia. Alabama is one of those states. That means that had Detroit's kits been tested after being taken into evidence, an attack might have been prevented in Alabama. It turns out one city's backlog is a threat to public safety in all communities across the country.
The good news is that we are getting closer and closer to the kind of national response the rape kit backlog warrants. 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 the reduction of untested rape kits. In these harsh economic times, this is a critical investment that will save lives, prevent suffering, hold rapists accountable and allow jurisdictions to provide justice for survivors.
This funding can make the difference between getting a violent offender off the street and letting him go free to harm again. Alabama's congressional delegation has an opportunity to support full funding for rape kit reform as the budget moves through Congress. Senators Shelby and Sessions have been strong supporters of ending the rape kit backlog in the past. 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. We must hold dangerous assailants accountable. The stakes are simply too high.
To learn more about efforts to end the rape kit backlog, go to: http://www.endthebacklog.org.
(Sarah Tofte is the Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation .)