More than two years ago, in March 2012, I wrote an article for Law Enforcement Today about the shameful problem of unprocessed rape kits. In 2012 there were an estimated 400,000 of them, some more than 30 years old. These unprocessed kits were connected to victims who had been waiting for assurances that someone cared about the horrific suffering they had endured. In that article I reported there were signs that things were changing: New York had cleared its 17,000-kit backlog, and Michigan and California were beginning to tackle the problem.
Fast forward to June 2014, and rape kits are in the news again. A recent CBS News investigation concluded that at least 20,000 rape kits across the country are still waiting to be tested: 5,600 in Detroit. 3,800 in Houston. 5,100 in San Antonio, and more than 1,00 in Albuquerque. According to CBS, at least twelve major American cities revealed they have no idea how many untested rape kits are still in storage: Anchorage, Baltimore, Birmingham, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Oakland, Phoenix, and San Diego.
Criminal justice experts cite a number of reasons why rape kits go unprocessed. One is the “blame the victim” attitude that lingers in some agencies; another is cost—$1,000 and up for testing each kit. That unwillingness to seek and prosecute rapists can have far-reaching effects. “Predators look for vulnerable people, and they prey on vulnerable people,” says David Lisak, a psychologist from the University of Massachusetts. “And if, as a criminal justice system, we’re going to essentially turn from any victim who was drinking or any victim who was in some way vulnerable—we’re essentially giving a free pass to sexual predators.”
Untested rape kits cause rape victims to lose confidence in the criminal justice system. “When we have talked to victims, they very much so doubt that it was worth it for them to go to the police,” said Sarah Tofte, US Program Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “They’re incredibly disillusioned with the criminal justice system, and that sends a terrible message.”
The sad truth is that rape in this country is surprisingly easy to get away with. The arrest rate last year was just 25 percent, a fraction of the rate for murder (79 percent) and aggravated assault (51 percent). But no federal law requires processing of rape kits, and only a handful of states have passed their own legislation mandating testing.
Is testing these long-forgotten kits worth the expense? In 2009, authorities found more than 11,000 unprocessed kits at the Detroit crime lab after it was closed for improperly handling weapons evidence. After testing the first 2,000 kits, authorities identified 127 serial rapists and made 473 matches to other people in crime databases from 24 states and the District of Columbia. Eight men have been convicted and sentenced to prison, 61 others have been charged and await trial, and 150 investigations remain open.
So rape kits really do help identify and convict rapists—and they can solve other cold cases as well. According to Spencer S. Hsu of the Washington Post, “untested evidence may hold powerful clues, especially in ‘stranger rapes,’ because sex offenders are often repeat offenders.” Psychologist David Lisak says DNA technology should be a routine step in a rape investigation, but many police departments rely only on testimony from the parties involved. “Somehow all we can do is take the statement from the victim. Take the statement from the alleged perpetrator and then throw up our hands because they are saying conflicting things,” Lisak said. “That’s not how we investigate other crimes.”
RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, is pushing to have untested rape kits taken out of storage and processed. According to the RAINN website, “Undeniably, prosecuting rapists early on is the single most effective rape prevention tool that we have available.” Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, says, “It’s appalling that tens of thousands of rapists remain free, even though police possess the evidence to identify and convict them. Every day that these unprocessed kits sit in storerooms and labs, these rapists remain at large, searching out new victims.”
Why doesn’t the government do something about all the untested rape kits? It already has. In 2004 Congress established the $1.5 billion Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program, intended to process rape-kit backlogs at crime labs. However, its funds can also be used to expand DNA testing for other crimes and to pay for other forensic science programs if authorities say they have no backlog. In 2013 the Government Accountability Office found that the Justice Department awarded grants without clearly verifying how the money was spent and could not determine whether backlogs had been measurably reduced.
According to the Washington Post, Tennessee is one state that displayed “poor planning and limited police participation” in allocating its Debbie Smith funds. In 2003 the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation received $3.4 million in federal funds—but only $537,000 was spent on rape kits, and just a few hundred were processed.
Within all this negative news, however, there are signs of progress:
- New York has been a pioneer in processing stored rape kits. Its arrest rate for sexual assaults went from 40 percent to 70 percent after its backlog was cleared.
- Virginia has enacted legislation requiring rape kits to be submitted for testing by next January.
- San Antonio is now processing kits in its backlog and entering DNA into the FBI’s DNA Database.
- In Detroit, where at least 9,000 rape kits have been stored for years, Michigan State Police have selected about 1,400 for testing.
- Los Angeles has embarked on a similar program.
- Oakland is now processing 489 untested rape kits from stranger rapes dating back six years.
- Congress is talking about allocating $41 million sought by the Obama administration to examine untested DNA evidence collected from rape victims and held by state and local police across the country. The House approved the measure in May, and the Senate is planning a vote sometime soon.
To learn more:
Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of ten books, including Police Talk (Pearson), and she publishes a Police Writer Newsletter. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book Criminal Justice Report Writing. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.