Nel's New Day

October 20, 2014

Take Action: Over 400,000 Rape Kits Still Untested

Filed under: Rape,Women's issues — trp2011 @ 4:01 PM
Tags: ,

Memphis (TN) is the latest city to discover untested rape kits on police shelves. The recent discovery of 200 untested kits brings the city’s total backlog to over 12,000 and contributes to the other 400,000+ untested ones in the United States. The DNA identified from skin, hair, bodily fluids, etc. left on sexual assault victims is invaluable in finding and convicting rapists, but only 3 percent of rapists ever serve one day in prison. An estimated 91 to 95 percent of rapes are committed by serial rapists, and serial offenders commit an average of six rapes each.

Because the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, the FBI’s criminal forensic database, was not available until the mid-1990s, police didn’t bother to have most rape kits tested from the 1970s and 1980s, leaving a tremendous backlog. The cost of between $500 and $1,500 to test just one rape kit also keeps police from testing all the ones that they receive. If the victim knows the attacker, police tend not to follow through with the testing. In the current climate, however, DNA is vital in prosecuting a case.

Sarah Tofte, vice president of policy and advocacy for The Joyful Heart Foundation (JHF), a nonprofit founded by actress and activist Mariska Hargitay, explained another reason for the backlog. She said that kits aren’t tested in order of receipt because of the overwhelming workload in labs. Police and DAs ask for what they consider the most deserving to be put at the top of the list.

Law enforcement choices in which kits are tested first–or at all–come from opinions about whether a victim seems untrustworthy or a victim has been identified, according to the National Institute of Justice. Priority is also given to cases in which the victim is visibly injured and the suspect is a stranger. In eight in ten rape cases, however, the attack is by someone who the victim knows at least slightly, and most rape cases lack signs of violence. According to David Lisak, a clinical psychologist, acquaintance rapists are often chronic offenders.

Testing the backlog of rape kits would cost Memphis $6.5 million, but its efforts thus far have led to 162 new investigations, 22 indictments, and 16 identifications of people previously convicted of rape. Detroit has tested 1,600 of its 11,000 untested rape kits and identified 100 serial rapists linked to rapes in at least 12 states with 10 of them already convicted. Cleveland’s clearing of 3,985 rape kits led to the indictment of 170 men. New York’s program to clear the backlog has raised the rape arrest rate from 40 percent to 70 percent. Ohio’s testing of more than half its 8,000 kit backlog led to more than 135 indictments; a third of those charged are linked to more than one rape.

One rape victim, Natasha Alexenko, founded Natasha’s Justice Project, a nonprofit focused on testing all the rape kits in the backlog. There could be far more than 400,000 untested kits because most jurisdictions do not have systems for tracking or counting rape kits. The GOP has blocked a bill to even audit untested rape kits for three years.

Before Congress left Washington for two months last month, it gave final approval to The Debbie Smith Act, a program that provides federal grants to law enforcement agencies to work through the backlog of DNA evidence. Without this five-year renewal, the program would have expired on the first day of October. Advocacy groups are requesting an additional $41 million in the FY15 spending bill.

Although Congress has appropriated $1.5 billion over the past decade to clear overdue DNA tests, states are not required to spend this money on rape kits and have little oversight. For example, Los Angeles County had 12,600 untested rape kits in 2009, yet its federal grant money was not used until public attention forced leaders to take action.

At this time, no federal law mandates testing or tracking rape kits, and only five states—California, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, and Texas—have legal requirements to count, track, and test rape kits. California’s requirement that all law enforcement submit rape kits to a lab within 20 days was signed at the end of last month. Labs need to test kits within 120 days or send it along to another lab within a month. The backlog can remain for over a year, though, because the law doesn’t go into effect until 2016.

In Oregon, rape kits are performed by certified SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners) nurses within 84 hours of the rape. State law requires employing or contracting with a SANE nurse, but 14 of 36 counties don’t have any of the 132 certified nurses in the state. The state does not require certification, only 40 hours training. Only six SANE nurses in the state are certified to work with children younger than 15, meaning that raped children may have to travel a distance to have a rape kit performed on them.

Different areas are using a variety of solutions. Lawyer Robert Spence filed a federal class action lawsuit against Memphis because of its untested rape kits. Wayne County (MI) Prosecutor Kym Worthy got $1.5 million in federal funding to get Detroit rape kits processed. With 1,600 completed, she estimates that her office needs another $15 million to test, investigate, and prosecute outstanding cases. Through the Detroit Crime Commission on the Detroit Rape Kit Initiative, she is asking the public for donations.

Tofte 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.”

It’s time to audit and test kits, keep them up-to-date, track the results through CODIS, and mandate that federal monies allotted to these tasks be given oversight so that the money goes where the law directs.


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