Rape Kit Reform

Posted on April 28, 2017 by Avatar

Why do I care?

Every 98 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. Many victims undergo a rape kit examination following their assault, this involves a medical professional performing an exhaustive and invasive examination of the victim’s body for DNA evidence left behind by the attacker.

During this exam, the victim is poked, prodded, and photographed for anywhere from 4 to 6 hours. Having a rape kit examination is an emotionally as well as physically draining process, especially because it needs to be done as close to the attack as possible. What’s worse is the fact that it can take years for that evidence to even be evaluated. Regrettably, this means that case-making DNA evidence is lost. Victims don’t receive a rape kit may also miss out on follow up care such as STD screenings and other prevention.

 

Why do we need rape kit reform?

Eliminating the backlog of untested rape kits is a pivotal and essential step towards improving our nation’s criminal justice response to sexual violence.  Leaving potentially crucial evidence sitting on a shelf for years is an insult, and a profound injustice to every survivor. It sends a message to survivors that their case is unimportant, and it gives perpetrators a sense of security to continue their behaviors. It is so important that we let survivors know they matter, and that their cases matter.

We spoke with the Joyful Heart Foundation’s, Melissa Shwartz and she discussed the justice system’s responsibility to protect survivors and hold perpetrators responsible, saying, “Each untested kit represents a missed opportunity to bring justice and healing to a survivor and increased safety to a community.” When rape kits are left untested cases go cold, serial offenders continue to wreak havoc, and survivors are forced to sit by and watch while their case dries up.
Rape survivors are more than a statistic and they are more than a box on a shelf. In 2002, former Vice President and then U.S. Senator, Joe Biden addressed the senate concerning the DNA Sexual Assault Justice Act (S.152). During this hearing he recounted several women’s experiences with sexual assault, and spoke out on the disturbing backlog of untested kits. Biden reminded the audience that “behind every single one of those rape kits is a victim who deserves recognition and justice.”  

 

 

Funding & the Joyful Heart Foundation:

Since 2010, the elimination of the nation’s backlog of over 200,000 untested rape kits has been the top advocacy project of the Joyful Heart Foundation. The success of reform implementation is often dependent on whether law enforcement, crime labs, and prosecutors receive additional resources and funding to help them move forward.  

Every single one of those 200,000 untested kits belongs to a person just as real as you or me. Those kits represent two-hundred-thousand real life people— people you may know, subjected to one of the most horrific offenses imaginable. We have the technology, we have the resources, the next step is to use them.

Law enforcement, government officials, and advocacy groups are working to reallocate funds to end the backlog. In September of 2015, Joyful Heart’s Founder and President (and the beloved Detective Olivia Benson of Law & Order, SVU), Mariska Hargitay stood beside Vice President Biden, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., for the announcement that $80 million in federal funds and grants were to be distributed throughout 43 jurisdictions in 27 states, and were expected to aid in the testing of 70,000 backlogged rape kits.

This proves that by working together, we can tackle this backlog, make our streets safer, and most importantly bring justice to every survivor.

 

Ending the Backlog:

Today, 27 states have put some kind of rape kit reform legislation in place. However, these reforms have had varying levels of success. Ohio, and Michigan’s  reforms have yielded some of the most impressive results so far. Since their new laws and procedures have been implemented, thousands of offenders have been taken off the streets. In 2009, Detroit had a backlog of nearly 12,000 untested kits. As of January 2017, they have tested approximately 10,000 kits, leading to the identification of 784 suspected serial rapists and more than 2,500 DNA matches.

In Ohio, 13,931 previously untested, and newly submitted rape kits have led to almost 5,000 DNA hits. This new information has revealed 399 serial offenders and has led to the indictment of 546 offenders in Cuyahoga County alone. Had these kits been tested when they were collected, some of this violence could have been prevented.

But it isn’t too late to bring these criminals to justice.  Rape kit testing laid the groundwork for the indictment of almost 600 rapists in a single county— bringing justice to hundreds of survivors and helping them down the path to recovery. These results cannot, and should not be ignored; newly tested kits are helping to solve cases old and new across the country.

Since January 1, 2017, more than 60 rape kit reform bills have been introduced in 30 states. This recent progress shows that we are on track to reach the Joyful Heart Foundation’s goal: to pass comprehensive reform in all 50 states by 2020.
Even though significant progress has been made, no states have enacted full, comprehensive reform. (For more detailed information on comprehensive reform, click here)