Justice for survivors of sexual assault

by Sarah Tofte | Joyful Heart
Tuesday, 20 August 2013 03:20 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

If testing rape kits represents a chance for justice for survivors and accountability for offenders, not testing kits represents the opposite.

Last year, a FedEx delivery truck arrived at the Detroit Police Department storage facility to pick up the first batch of untested rape kits bound, finally, for crime labs. Thus began Detroit’s massive task of processing its rape kit backlog – the more than 11,000 kits that were left behind to languish in a police warehouse, some for more than two decades.

When someone is raped, her body becomes a living, breathing crime scene. Testing a rape kit can identify unknown assailants, confirm the presence of a known suspect, affirm the survivor’s account of the attack, connect the 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. 

As the test results have come in from those first kits delivered to the crime lab, it is painfully clear what toll Detroit’s backlog has taken on the safety of the city. After a National Institute of Justice grant allowed the first 500 kits to be tested, 32 potential serial rapists have been identified.

Detroit may have the largest known rape kit backlog in the United States, but it is far from the only jurisdiction with a problem. Experts estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the country – the exact number remains elusive because the federal government does not track rape kit data. Nearly everything we know about the rape kit backlog in cities around the United States comes not from government reporting, but from the hard work of human rights researchers, journalists, and victim’s rights advocates.

Some may read about Detroit’s rape kit backlog with a sigh of relief that their city or state doesn’t face the same problem. They shouldn’t. Until we fix the rape kit backlog in every city and state, we are all at risk. For example, as data continues to roll in from Detroit’s testing, DNA from the kits tested so far has connected to assailants traced to crimes in 11 additional states and the District of Columbia. That means that had Detroit’s kits been tested after being taken into evidence, an attack might have been prevented in one of these states. It turns out one city’s backlog is a threat to public safety in all communities across the country.

For the general public, the fact that there is a rape kit backlog is astounding. How could a country known for its tough-on-crime policing let key evidence in rape cases languish? The answers say a lot about how poorly the United States responds to sexual violence, and how far we have to go to realize our commitment to advance women’s rights. Those who live close to the reality of sexual violence in the United States – survivors, victim service providers, experts – may be dismayed when another rape kit backlog is uncovered in yet another police storage closest or freezer, but they are not surprised. They know that very few rape cases make it very far in the criminal justice system, and that, in a country with a rape arrest rate hovering at an anemic 24%, the rape kit backlog is a tangible symbol of our society’s failures to take rape – and rape victims – seriously.

The good news is that the rape kit backlog is a problem that can be fixed. Jurisdictions are taking the lead in showing the country what reform can and should look like – including the four states that now require the tracking and testing of rape kit evidence – Illinois, Texas, Colorado by statute, and Ohio through a directive from the Attorney General. 

These reforms require an increased investment of political commitment and financial resources. During this session, Congress has the opportunity to provide both. After President Obama’s request that Congress allocate dollars to reduce the backlog, both the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives and the Democratic-led 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 rape kits. States and cities committed to rape kit reform desperately need this kind of federal grant program to realize the pursuit of justice for survivors. Congress needs to hear from constituents that this funding is a priority.

Not only is rape kit reform the right thing to do, it is supported by Americans across the political spectrum. A 2011 Harris Poll showed that 74% of the public supported testing of all rape kits, and 85% supported the creation of legislation requiring that all rape kits be tested. Ending the rape kit backlog is one of those rare criminal justice reform issues that garners universal support. 

Back in Detroit, a city grappling with the potent combination of financial stress and unabated violent crime rates, the law enforcement team in charge of ending the rape kit backlog continues to ship their untested rape kits for testing, one batch at a time. As the city, improbably, shows the country how rape kit reform can be done in even the worst of circumstances, its example provides promising news for survivors and public safety, and a sobering development for offenders who, until now, have enjoyed the freedom of impunity.

Let’s hope the rape kit reform trends set by cities, states, and – perhaps – Congress, continues, in the name of justice and accountability for all.

To learn more about efforts to end the rape kit backlog, go to: http://www.endthebacklog.org.

The cost to test a kit is between $1,200 and $1,500, and every dollar counts. If you are interested in helping eliminate the rape kit backlog in Detroit, click here and specify that you’d like your donation to go towards the “Detroit Rape Kit Initiative.”


--Sarah Tofte is the Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation