Editorial: Victims deserve better than nationwide rape kit backlog

Every seven minutes a rape occurs somewhere in the United States, yet fewer than half of those reported to police result in an arrest, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. One way to catch more rapists would be to eliminate the inexcusable nationwide backlog in laboratory testing of rape kits. How many are untested? No one knows, which is part of the problem.

Los Angeles has already been down this road. In 2008, under pressure from advocacy groups, the Los Angeles Police Department began processing a backlog of physical evidence it had collected in more than 6,000 cases, including DNA samples. With the help of grants, the backlog has been cleared, and the department says each new kit — 1,300 last year — is processed within three months, a laudable turnaround. Matching the evidence in the rape kits to a national DNA database has so far led to six convictions, three parole revocations and three pending arrest warrants, with more than two dozen cases still under investigation.

Still, Los Angeles has been a national leader in addressing the problem. Houston recently announced that it had cleared a 6,700-case backlog and found 850 DNA matches in the national database, leading to six convictions so far. Detroit has turned to a fundraising drive to raise money to prosecute its cold cases, including at least 188 possible serial rapists matched to the database after 11,000 rape kits were found in an abandoned storage facility. So far, 15 rapists have been convicted.


But from Las Vegas to Memphis, Tenn., backlogs remain largely untouched. Advocates for rape victims say the kits go untested for various reasons, especially in cases involving disputes over whether the sex was consensual, and when there are doubts about a successful prosecution. But if a woman says she was raped and agrees to the invasive evidence-gathering process, her case should be thoroughly investigated. Even if a case turns out to be difficult to prosecute, the evidence can still be useful, as Detroit found, in detecting serial rapists.

Another issue is the cost of testing, which runs from $500 to $1,500 per kit. Foundations have come forward with grant programs. The Manhattan district attorney created a $35-million fund from civil forfeitures to help other jurisdictions. And President Obama’s proposed budget includes $41 million in similar grant money, matching the funding level in the current budget.

More, obviously, needs to be done, from better reporting and tracking of collected evidence to more robust policies in processing it. Ignoring this basic element of law enforcement tells rape victims they are a low priority, and makes it easier for offenders to continue victimizing people. Law enforcement departments nationwide should give these cases the attention the victims deserve.
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