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 examination 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 that has struggled to respond adequately to sexual assault. 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. 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 to the crime lab for testing, it can sit for months — and in some cases, years — before being processed.
If testing kits represents a chance for justice for survivors and accountability for offenders, not testing kits represents the opposite.
Of all violent crimes in the United States, 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 processing its untested kits — more than 11,000 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. Florida 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 Florida. It turns out one city’s backlog is a threat to public safety in all communities across the country.
We are greatly encouraged that the federal government is making the reduction and 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 fiscal year 2014 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 — it also has the power to bring much-needed healing.
This funding can make the difference between getting a violent offender off the street and letting him go free to harm again. Florida’s congressional delegation 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. We must hold dangerous assailants accountable. The stakes are simply too high.
Sarah Tofte is the director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by actress Mariska Hargitay.