Matthew T. Mangino
October 3, 2014
There are more than 400,000 untested rape kits sitting on the shelves of evidence rooms and crime labs across the country.
A rape kit is literally a small box utilized by hospitals and emergency health care providers to secure evidence from the victim of a sexual assault. The kit typically includes microscope slides and plastic bags for storing evidence such as clothing fibers, hair, saliva, semen, or other bodily fluids. The analysis of a single rape kit can cost as much as $1,500.
The scope of the rape kit backlog is not clear, according to Time.com. Although there are 400,000 untested rape kits, there are not 400,000 missed rape prosecutions. Only an estimated 50 to 60 percent of rape kits contain biological material that does not belong to the victim, according to a National Institute of Justice report.
Women’s organizations and sexual assault advocates have voiced concern over testing of rape kits without permission or knowledge of the people who sought treatment. They suggest that unauthorized testing could prevent future rape victims from seeking medical treatment.
There is a difference between reporting an attack and choosing to press charges, according to the Rape, Assault, Incest National Network. A victim may choose not to immediately press charges following a report to police.
There are reasons a patient may not want to become involved in the criminal justice system including a relationship with the perpetrator; fear of not being believed; past experience with law enforcement; fear of the reaction of family and friends or fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, Cricket Rerko, a sexual assault nurse examiner with the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
There is no prohibition against reporting a sexual assault months or even years after it occurs. However, advocates urge victims to contact the police as soon as possible allowing for preservation of evidence crucial to a successful prosecution.
The reality is that between 64 and 96 percent of rapes are never reported to the police and only a small minority of reported cases ever result in a successful prosecution. According to a 2002 study by David Lisak and Paul M. Miller in the Violence and Victims Journal, the vast majority of rapists are never brought to justice.
In Tennessee, a backlog of 12,000 untested rape kits was revealed by a new state law requiring all state police departments to inventory and report their rape kit backlogs to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The Washington Post reported that some of the untested kits are nearly 30 years old.
California Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner wrote in a recent op-ed that her legislation, Assembly Bill 1517, was introduced to encourage universal testing of rape kits. Her legislation provides that law enforcement send rape kits to labs within 20 days of receiving them and for labs to process the kits and upload DNA profile information into a national database within 120 days.
California has not yet acted on the legislation.
In Ohio, Attorney General Mike DeWine made rape kit testing a major campaign issue during the 2010 attorney general’s race.
Making good on his campaign promise, DeWine offered free DNA testing to law enforcement agencies with untested rape kits in which a crime was believed to have been committed. According to WKYC-TV, a total of 141 law enforcement agencies have submitted untested rape kits.
As of the first of July, eight thousand and one kits had been submitted from around the state of Ohio, and 4,108 have been tested. The testing has resulted in 1,474 matches with records in the national DNA database — 35 percent of all kits tested.
Policymakers are trying to find a delicate balance. How do authorities vigorously pursue predators without trampling on the rights of victims to deal with the horrific trauma of rape on their own terms?
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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