It’s Not a Backlog, It’s a Lack of Concern for Rape Victims

According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), an American is sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. “Rape kit” is the term used to describe the physical evidence obtained from a victim who reports being sexually assaulted. Victims’ bodies are, in essence, the crime scene. They endure what some might describe as a second sexual violation, being scraped, poked and prodded, only out of hope that their perpetrator can eventually be held accountable. And perhaps not rape again, as so many do.

In January 2015, Florida officials announced that some 13,435 rape kits remain in police storage facilities around the state. The largest number of non-processed rape kits, more than 3,700, were in Miami-Dade County. Of course this is an underestimate, since some 11 percent of police agencies in the state would not respond to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s inquiry about the issue.

Florida is not alone. The Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by actor Maritza Hargitay, estimates that there are more than 400,000 untested rape kits around the country. Many have referred to it as a “rape kit backlog.” While surely there are some issues with funding and staffing to analyze this type of criminal evidence, when officials admit, like they have pretty much done everywhere, that they don’t test all the kits, it is clear that they care little about rape cases.

Indeed, officials in many precincts have said that if it’s not a stranger-rape case or if it’s a case in which the victim doesn’t want to participate they won’t exert any effort to analyze the rape kits. Those arguments are garbage. Even in acquaintance cases, the evidence can be important, as it might show a pattern of behavior that can help convict an offender, and, in particular, in cases of younger victims who are raped by family or friends, it is crucial evidence that a jury often wants in order to convict.

Maybe a victim doesn’t want to endure a trial. She should never be forced to do so. But what if knowing that evidence existed would convince her to do so? Or, what if the prosecution had that strong physical evidence and thus didn’t even need her to participate in the trial?

The reality is that police want to close cases and prosecutors want to win them. What that means for rape victims is clear: If your case isn’t perceived as “winnable,” sorry about your luck. Few other crimes warrant such neglect.

Testing these older rape kits has proven to be a useful expenditure of time and resources. In 2003, New York City analyzed 17,000 rape kits, resulting in dramatic increase in its arrest rate for rape, from 40 percent to 70 percent. In 2009, Detroit police found 11,000 untested rape kits in storage. After analysis of just 1,600 of them, 100 serial rapists were identified and 10 were convicted. The city also found 487 serial rapists who committed crimes in 39 states. Other cities have found similar results.

If we truly care about crime victims, we absolutely must devote whatever resources are needed to collect and analyze the physical evidence that will not only hold accountable but may also deter offenders. Otherwise, we are merely paying lip-service to accountability while declaring our lack of concern for stopping rape.

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Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

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