For every untested rape kit, there is a rape victim waiting for justice
A rape kit is a small box of evidence and DNA samples that are collected through a medical examination. The exam is between four to six hours long and extremely intrusive. The exams are usually taken immediately after a sexual assault and add to the already traumatized victim.
The kit is then sent to a crime laboratory or a police department for processing. Except that is not what has been happening. By law, rape kits are to be processed by the crime lab within 48 hours of receiving it. If not processed in 30 days, the kit becomes part of the backlog. Each rape it costs approximately $1,500 to process.
Rape kits have been literally warehoused all over the country. Many are lost, filed away or forgotten about or are assumed to not have evidence to prosecute a perpetrator. An example of why is date rape or when the victim knows the rapist. These cases become a he said, she said situation and even with DNA evidence, a conviction is difficult to obtain.
On May 20, 2015, The Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing with the Subcommittee on The Constitution titled “Taking Sexual Assault Seriously: The rape kit backlog and human rights” addressed fundamental questions such as how public funds have been spent and the progress made with the backlog.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has been unable to answer these rudimentary questions, leaving advocates at a loss to explain why so little progress has been made on the backlog even while the Obama administration has identified it as a top priority for sexual justice.
New York based Joyful Heart Foundation – whose managing director, Sarah Haacke Byrd, testified at the May 20, 2015 hearing – has been working independently to track cities’ rape kit backlogs through news reports and public records requests. It has found data for individual cities that shows thousands of untested rape kits, but its findings still fall far short of a comprehensive national picture of the extent of the problem. There are over 20,000 unprocessed rape kits in Houston, Texas alone. Add up these kinds of numbers from major metropolitan cities and the total climbs higher and higher.
There are almost half a million unprocessed rape kits in the United States. This count is not accurate either due to local level police departments, shortage of forensic laboratories and the tossing aside of rape kits. Only about 40% of rape victims report and submit to a rape kit examination in the first place so this is just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine the amount of repeat offenders not being held accountable at all. This is a gross case of police brutality but hidden in the shadows of corruption.
A rape victim who experienced a very common scenario championed the Debbie Smith Act, known as “the most important anti-rape legislation ever signed into law.”
Debbie Smith is from Williamsburg, Virginia, and was raped by a stranger in the woods behind her house in 1989. Smith’s rape kit was tested, and a DNA sample from her rapist was entered into the statewide criminal database. But the offender went on to rape more women, and because their kits were not tested soon after, Smith’s case went unsolved for six years.
Her rape kit box was called “Box 6”. This box was misplaced and for seven years, Debbie fought for her rape kit box to be found. It was finally located and DNA was run on the samples and her rapist turned out to be in prison for other crimes.
Smith was relieved that she no longer had to hide in the shadows since her rapist threatened to kill her and her family if she said or did anything. Seven years of hell for Debbie, her husband and two children. Debbie Smith soon became an activist for rape kit backlogs and lobbied to get the Act passed and renewed.
In 2004, the Debbie Smith Act was signed into law as part of the Justice for All Act. This Act was renewed in 2013 but the backlog has only grown. Rape kits are still not being processed in a timely fashion, despite more than a billion dollars in public funding since 2004, and the passage of two federal laws aimed at solving this problem.
Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, co-sponsored one of the key laws in 2013, known as the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting Act, or the SAFER Act. “I am concerned that the programs for backlog auditing have not been properly established as required, and I am hopeful that issue will soon be resolved,” Maloney said.
The problem with the Debbie Smith Act specifies that only rape kits could be tested using funds appropriated under this act. Rather, grants could be used to test backlogged DNA samples from a variety of offenders and crime scenes, including crimes unrelated to sexual assault, such as homicide and property crimes. This was rectified with the Leahy-Crapo Violence Against Women Re-authorization Act of 2013. How much legislation and funding from the federal government is needed for police departments to do their jobs?
Testimony was given by Debbie Smith, Scott Berkowitz of Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN), the assistant director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Skylar Hearn, The Honorable Lisa Madigan, Attorney General for Illinois, Sarah Hacke Byrd, Managing Director of the Joyful Heart Foundation. All were witnesses testifying about the backlog of rape kits despite federal money being dispersed. The audio and testimony transcripts can be seen here.
After all this legislation has passed and federal funding has been given to every state to expand crime labs and deal with the backlog, a repeated narrative about rape seems to continue on the state level, mostly by Republican governors. Those attitudes combined with how rape kits weren’t being processed enabled rapists to commit their crimes.
These are the politicians who comment on rape the most. Now with the Duggar family, incest is acceptable to some respected leaders in the Republican Party, particularly Mike Huckabee. These same politicians keep encouraging women to “enjoy rape” and if impregnated, carry the child to full term. Pretty ironic considering their states are receiving federal funds to process these rape kits.
In the end, each of these kits represents a devastated, traumatized survivor, and we owe it to them to find their offenders and to hold them accountable.