Testing Rape Kits: An Uphill Battle

About 80% of rape kits are never tested in Illinois.

Earlier this month, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed the nation’s first law requiring law enforcement officials to send rape kits to crime labs for DNA testing within 10 days of collection.  The physical evidence collected in a rape kit will often make or break a case, and once the evidence is collected in the emergency room following an attack, the investigation process is out of the victim’s hands.  In Illinois and other states around the country, advocates have been struggling to underscore and reform nonresponsive police attitudes toward rape investigations for years.  The Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act, initiated by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, is a triumph and a beacon for survivors and advocates across the U.S.

But this small victory came just days before the Human Rights Watch (HRW) released the results of an investigation finding that the problem may be much worse than many of us imagined.  According to HRW, out of 16,738 reported rapes since 1995, only 31% resulted in evidence collection in the form of a rape kit.  Out of the rape kits collected, about 80% were never testedEighty percent.  Almost 25% of all rape kits in Illinois were destroyed without being tested.  All of this adds up to 11 percent, which is the proportion of reported rapes that result in arrest in Illinois – that’s half the national average.

So what’s behind all this?  HRW reported testimony showing that police don’t bother to process rape kits because, well, they just don’t think it’s that important.

Sarah Tofte, the HRW researcher responsible for the report, writes that the most common reason law enforcement agencies gave for failing to submit a rape kit for lab testing was “the belief that testing was not necessary in an ‘acquaintance rape.’”  So most rapes – actually, at least 70% according to RAINN.  Tofte adds, “Law enforcement held this view despite the possibility that the collected evidence could connect a suspect to multiple rape kits and establish a serial rapist, discredit the suspect’s version of events and affirm the victim’s version of events, or exonerate innocent suspects. As one police official told Human Rights Watch, ‘We don’t need the DNA test when we know who the suspect is already without it. It would be a waste of everyone’s time and money.’”

Um.  Except when the suspect doesn’t really feel like being charged with rape today.  Or in cases where it’s her word against his.  The first time I read that quote, I just about lost my mind.  Police don’t make exceptions like that for any other federal crime, but somehow a rape investigation gets the honor of being “a waste of everyone’s time and money.”  Seriously, guys, I pay taxes for this nonsense.

For better or worse, police get to decide whether a crime has actually been committed at the time it’s reported.  Police discretion becomes a problem, however, when it conflates with personal bias regarding rape victims and ultimately interferes with a cop’s ability to perform a full and appropriate investigation.  A victim’s basic right to collect and test evidence in the interest of pressing charges against her or his attacker should never begin or end with police discretion.  It’s called due diligence: if the police collect evidence related to a crime, they have to submit it for testing whether they feel like it or not.  Our society has roles for a reason, and a cop is neither a judge nor a jury.

Don’t get me wrong, I work with cops as an advocate, I know cops and, on a personal level, I even sort of like cops.  The real issue behind rape kit backlogging is the widespread and enduring belief that rape is not a crime worthy of adequate attention by law enforcement.  Too many people believe that rape is not a crime.  That is the central problem with the criminal “justice” system’s response to sexual assault.  That’s why we have a shortage of trained nurses performing rape kits correctly, an abundance of ignorant doctors actively discouraging traumatized patients from pursuing criminal charges, police departments that literally leave rape kits behind to rot, and lower conviction rates for rape than any other felony across all 50 states.  And that is why survivors often call the criminal “justice” process one of revictimization.

Tofte concludes that “the value a state places on its rape kits is one measure of how seriously it takes the crime of rape and the victims who report sexual violence.”  The new Illinois law is a small victory in an uphill battle, but our society has a long way to go in demonstrating to victims that their experiences matter and showing criminals that rape will never be tolerated.

The HRW report, “’I Used to Think the Law Would Protect Me’: Illinois’s Failure to Test Rape Kits,” is free and available online.  If you’d like to learn more about different rape laws across the world, check out this segment by Worldview, Chicago Public Radio’s global affairs program.

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3 Comments on “Testing Rape Kits: An Uphill Battle”

  1. 1 Ashley Lebesco said at 12:02 pm on August 2nd, 2010:

    It continues to baffle my mind that this happens in 2010, why are not more people freaking out about this?

  2. 2 NK said at 12:03 pm on August 2nd, 2010:

    Simply put, it’s about time.

  3. 3 Miranda said at 10:29 am on August 13th, 2010:

    Thanks for commenting, everyone!
    There’s currently a proposed federal act in committee that, if passed, would require ALL states to test and keep track of their rape kits. Please take a minute to write to your Congress members urging them to co-sponsor the Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009! Just fill out your information at this HRW campaign: http://bit.ly/6wPlHE

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