Ending the Rape Kit Backlog
The White House Council on Women and Girls released a report in January entitled “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action.” Among the familiar, grim statistics (nearly one in five women have been raped in their lifetimes; an arrest is made in only 12 percent of rapes), the findings also called attention to an under-addressed obstacle to justice for survivors: the backlog of untested rape kits.
Rape kits—the collection of forensic evidence after a rape or sexual assault—can contain the perpetrator’s DNA, and that DNA can not only lead to an arrest, but can also be entered into the national FBI database, yielding connections to other crimes.
“Unfortunately,” acknowledged the report, “many rape kits are still sitting on the shelves, either ignored or waiting to be tested.” The federal government estimates that hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain untested. Definitive figures are not known because state and local law enforcement offices are not required to account for how many untested kits are warehoused in their evidence rooms.
Advocates have been working for years to move the needle on this problem. For example, in 2001 the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) launched a campaign to increase public and law enforcement awareness. At this point only four states—Illinois, Texas, Colorado, and Ohio—have passed legislation requiring the “counting, tracking, and timely testing” of rape kits. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) noted via e-mail that since her state’s law went into effect in 2010, “Illinois has completely eliminated its rape kit backlog—the minimum that we owe to all victims of sexual assault. All states should follow Illinois’s lead, and the federal government must provide the critical resources public safety officials need to apprehend perpetrators of sexual assaults.”
Even though rape evidence testing should be routine, in some places “it’s a miracle when a rape kit gets to a lab,” according to Sarah Tofte, vice president of policy and advocacy for The Joyful Heart Foundation (JHF), a nonprofit founded by actress and activist Mariska Hargitay. “It means someone thought enough of it—and that the case was worthy.” While at Human Rights Watch, Tofte researched and wrote the report “I Used to Think the Law Would Protect Me.” She is now spearheading the pushback campaign EndTheBacklog for the JHF. Its mission is to secure legislation at the state and federal level to make rape kit testing mandatory.
Agreeing that limited budgets can be an impediment, Tofte nevertheless emphasized, “It’s a government responsibility. They need to find the funds.” She stated that DNA technicians have an overwhelming workload in many labs, and kits aren’t tested in order of receipt. Rather, police and district attorneys push to get what they consider most deserving to the top of the list. Tofte characterized this detective and prosecution “discretion” as a major component of backlog.
There have been different strategies used to approach the crisis. In Tennessee, Robert Spence, a lawyer acting on behalf of a “Jane Doe” and others, recently filed a federal class action lawsuit against the city of Memphis for leaving 12,000 kits untested. In Detroit, 11,000 neglected sexual assault kits were found in police storage facilities. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy procured $1.5 million in federal funding to help her team process the evidence. To date, 1600 have been tested, with results back for 25 percent. In those 400 kits, 30 serial rapists were identified and linked to rapes in twelve states nationwide. Worthy estimates that her office will need another $15 million to test, investigate, and prosecute outstanding cases. Her office is taking the atypical step of reaching out to the public for donations, through the Detroit Crime Commission on the Detroit Rape Kit Initiative.
Solving the rape kit backlog is just one aspect of the path to justice for sexual assault survivors. Making the justice system more accessible to all, insisting on follow-through from law enforcement and prosecutors, and fighting prejudice against rape victims—especially those who are women of color, poor, prostituted, or homeless—are also part of that journey.
Tofte made it clear. “Ultimately,” she said, “we seek to change attitudes about sexual violence and abuse by removing the stigma around these crimes and shifting the focus from survivors to perpetrators. We seek to do so by educating the public, holding law enforcement accountable for treating sexual assault cases just as seriously as any other crime, and improving systems to lessen the trauma survivors experience and ensure greater access to justice.”