Imagine that you have just experienced an incredibly traumatizing and horrific experience – you were raped. Now imagine that, despite feeling powerless and needing to attempt to begin to heal, you immediately go to the hospital and spend up to six hours getting a sexual assault kit (“rape kit”) taken, possibly being traumatized again as you go through the invasive procedure to gather evidence from all over your body. Now imagine that none of that ends up mattering, because your local police decide not to process your rape kit.
Unfortunately, this scenario is far from a rarity. An estimated 180,000 rape kits are completed every year that are never tested, allowing rapists to roam free. Sometimes, the kits are not tested due to a lack of funding, despite the passing of the Debbie Smith Act in 2004 and its reauthorization in 2008. The act provides federal funding for localities to test backlogged rape kits. Other times, police officers take it upon themselves to decide that a case will not be taken to court or that evidence is not needed for a trial, whether or not either of these ends up being true.
In reality, though, all DNA evidence is useful. Sometimes, police officers decide not to test a rape kit because it is known that a sexual encounter occurred; it is simply a question of consent. In other cases, where the identity of the rapist is unknown and there are no suspects, officers also decide not to test the kit, as there is no DNA to which to compare it.
What I learned during my internship with the Feminist Majority Foundation, though, and throughout my research, is that all DNA is useful. When DNA is tested for a crime, it is uploaded onto a computer software program called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). That means that any time DNA is uploaded into the system, it is compared to all of the other DNA and potentially matched; so if I know the identity of my rapist and his DNA is matched with other DNA in the system, that match could help solve a past crime.
Two separate studies – one conducted by David Lisak and Paul Miller and the other by Stephanie McWhorter, Valerie Stander, Lex Merrill, Cynthia Thomsen, and Joel Milner – found that between 91% and 95% of “undetected rapists” – people that have raped but were never convicted – are repeat rapists, raping an average of six people. That means that every time someone is not arrested for rape and every time a rape kit with potential evidence is not tested, statistically speaking, the perpetrator has probably raped before and will most likely rape again. Testing rape kits can literally save lives.
So why aren’t we testing kits? And what can we do about it??
When the public demands change to their local police departments and sheriff offices, they listen. Find out if your city or county has a sexual assault kit backlog, and if they do, put pressure on them to eliminate that backlog! You can find your local law enforcement agencies’ contact information here.
Mobilize your community! Demand change! Protect women! And end rape!