TALK San Francisco: Untested Rape Kits

Monday, 30 May 2016
San Francisco, CA

On Wednesday, June 1st, our San Francisco Bay Area Committee held its second TALK SF event focused on the rape kit backlog. Hosted by committee member Amy McNamara and her husband, Michael, the event gathered 45 individuals to discuss the appalling number of untested rape kits across the United States and delve into Joyful Heart’s advocacy work to enact reform on local, state, and federal levels. 

Each year, an estimated 68 percent of sexual assaults go unreported to police.  But each year, thousands of individuals do take the step of reporting their rape to the police and undergoing a rape kit exam. This invasive forensic examination of a victim’s body typically takes four to six hours to complete and is a testament to their hope for justice. And yet, hundreds of thousands of times, a decision is made by law enforcement and prosecutors not to process the kit for DNA evidence. It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits across the United States

Sarah Haacke Byrd, JHF’s Managing Director, spoke to the importance of testing every kit:

DNA evidence is proven powerful tool for solving and preventing crime. When tested, rape kit evidence can identify a suspect, affirm the survivor's account of the attack, and connect the suspect to other crime scenes. The decision to not test kits means cases go unsolved, serial rapists remain undetected, and tens of thousands of survivors continue to wait for justice.

Guests engaged in an interactive dialogue about sexual assault, the backlog, the criminal justice system, and the movement for reform. Joyful Heart’s CEO Maile Zambuto provided a history of Joyful Heart’s work to end the backlog and the great strides that have been made: 

Over the past seven years, we have worked to:

  • Identify backlogs in cities across the country. In 2014, we launched The Accountability Project in partnership with our pro bono attorneys Goodwin Procter LLP and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP to issue public records requests to cities across the country. Since we launched this program, we have uncovered more than 30,000 kits. Through this project, as well as our work supporting investigative journalists across the country, more than 175,000 kits have been uncovered. This year, we have included three new California cities in The Accountability Project—San Jose, Sacramento, and Fresno.
  • Advocate for federal and regional funding to test backlogged kits and investigate and prosecute cases;
  • Appeal for a suite of laws and policies at the state level that mandate the submission and swift testing of every rape kit booked into evidence;  
  • Work with jurisdictions to assist them in addressing the system failures that led to the problem and in the the development and implementation of survivor-centered reforms; 
  • Conduct research, including our most recently published report conducted in partnership with a researcher at Cal State Long Beach to advise jurisdictions who will be re-engaging survivors whose backlogged kits have yielded results.

Host Michael McNamara closed the evening by asking guests to continue to TALK.

When we keep talking about these issues, we identify solutions. Please, please keep talking. When you think it, say it. When you hear [a solution], know it.

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