Across the United States, hundreds of thousands of rape kits are still sitting on shelves unprocessed, years after the crimes are reported. In 2009, 11,304 of these kits — with some dating back to the 80s — were found sitting in a Detroit police storage facility. It was a repeat of something we’d seen before — in 2001, New York City had had a backlog of 16,000 rape kits. By the time Detroit’s stash was found, the Big Apple had just barely gotten theirs under control. The Detroit discovery kicked off campaigns across the nation to get local police departments to tally things up and get kits processed. The going’s been slow.
“Testing rape kits is vital for keeping rapists off the street,” says Mariska Hargitay, actress in Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit. She was in a press conference in Detroit this week, but she’s not just a celebrity prop for the cause.
Hargitay has been fighting sexual assault and abuse harder in real life than sergeant Olivia Benson does onscreen. It did have something to do with the show — as it gained notoriety, survivors of crimes like those depicted in SVU reached out to Hargitay, to tell her their experiences — some for the first time. “I remember getting the sense that many were living in isolation with so much shame,” she recalls. “But the shame belonged to the perpetrators. I wanted to help find a way to help people reclaim their lives and live them with a renewed sense of possibility and hope.”
Ten years ago, Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation to provide support to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. But one of the biggest obstacles for the foundation wasn’t on the side of survivors, but that of law enforcement. Concerned about the holdups with rape kits, Hargitay and Joyful Heart jumped into action, kicking off the End The Backlog campaign to raise awareness and empower communities to lobby for legislation that will set guidelines and deadlines for the processing of kits.
Hargitay’s belief that processing kits solves crimes isn’t without basis. Of the 1,600 rape kits processed by Detroit so far, 100 have resulted in the identification of 46 serial rapists, some of which have moved on to commit similar crimes in 23 other states. Fourteen prosecutions have resulted from what is being referred to as the “Detroit Rape Kit Project.”
Reporting for WXYZ Detoit, Kim Craig tells the case of 32-year-old DeShawn Starks, who robbed and raped a woman in 2003. The woman’s kit was shelved, leaving Starks free. Starks raped again not long after. That kit, too, was put in storage and left unprocessed. It is unknown how many women were attacked by Starks. Other tests have connected him to two more rapes in 2013. Only now, over one decade after the first known case, has Starks been sentenced to 45 to 90 years.
Unfortunately, Michigan isn’t the only place where this sort of backlog is happening: it is currently estimated that 400,000 rape kits are waiting to be processed around the nation. In San Francisco, an investigation by ABC7 News prompted the police department to conduct its own audit in February, which revealed 753 untested rape kits dating from 2003 to 2013. Police Captain Den Perea justified not going back further due to the ten-year statute of limitation on most types of sexual assaults. Simply, testing older kits wouldn’t produce information the department can “act upon.” That said, the pressure has changed policy at the department: from here on out, all San Francisco kits will be processed, not only those related to crimes with unknown suspects.
The Los Angeles Police Department was quicker to act — immediately after the discovery in Detroit, the department began to work on its own backlog of 6,132 unprocessed rape kits. By 2010, 245 people had been arrested in connection to those cases. By the time the department cleared the backlog in 2011, they’d identified 1,000 suspects.
New York City, mentioned previously, worked its way through their 16,000 kit backlog and has managed to keep up — not least of all because they realized that doing so made the arrest rate for rape cases leap from 40 percent to 70 percent. Yeah, doing this helps.
According to End The Backlog, cities that are currently working through their backlogs include Denver, Colorado (998 kits); San Antonio, Texas (2,000 kits); Cleveland, Ohio (4,000 kits); Dallas, Texas (4,144 kits); Detroit, Michigan (9,704); and Memphis, Tennessee (12,164). Phoenix, Arizona is known to have a backlog of 2,996 and Las Vegas, Nevada, one of 4,000, but it is unknown whether law enforcement in either city have plans to begin processing at this time. Many cities have yet to conduct an audit to determine their own backlogs, much less make a commitment to getting them processed.
How does this happen? Rape kit processing costs between $500 and $1,500, so with tight budgets, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors try to focus resources on cases that will result in conviction. That makes sense, until you think about it for a moment.
“They’re making subjective judgments about whether they’re likely to get a conviction, what this rape looks like, whether the victim is credible, and what the victim’s worth to society is,” Sarah Tofte, the director of policy and advocacy for Joyful Heart, explained to ThinkProgress. Tofte thinks that many of the same cultural factors at play surrounding sexual assault impact the backlog: law enforcement focuses on the victim instead of the perpetrator, analyzing a victim’s actions and choices before the alleged assault, making it easy to discredit her story or deprioritize it.
When law enforcement decides whether or not to move a case forward, they’re thinking about how this victim would be received in the media, and whether she’s a person whose claims are worth believing. “Ultimately, it’s about, does this victim deserve justice?” said Tofte, who believes that if law enforcement turned its attention on the crime instead of analyzing the victim, more rape cases would be solved.
At the beginning of the month, the White House announced an initiative to put $35 million of the 2015 budget into processing rape kits. According to the New Republic, however, Republicans in Congress are poised and ready to nuke Obama’s spending initiatives.
Header image via End The Backlog.