State of the Backlog: Illinois

A young woman, Stephanie (not her real name), came to see me in my New York office. She had been raped in Chicago two years earlier, and had heard from an advocate there for rape victims that I was writing a report on untested DNA evidence from rape cases in Illinois. I took her for coffee so we could get to know each other before I interviewed her, and we talked about her teaching job, her move to New York City and my new son.

Then, in the middle of our introduction to one another, Stephanie said: “After this experience, I don’t feel safe anymore. I am a tough girl, but it made me feel like if something happened, the law isn’t there for me. It doesn’t really work.”

Stephanie was talking about the fact that the DNA evidence, known as a “rape kit”—collected over a period of hours in the emergency room with medical personnel examining her entire body—had never been tested. Her rapist had never been interviewed by the police or arrested. And now, two years later, she was trying to come to terms with the way her case was handled.

I spoke to Stephanie at the early stages of research that I did for Human Rights Watch into the rape kit backlog in Illinois. What I suspected, but had not yet confirmed, was that there were many survivors like her who had seen very little investigation happen with their rape case. What I found is that the vast majority of DNA evidence collected from rape victims in Illinois is never tested and that the arrest rate for rape is just 11 percent compared to 24 percent nationally.

Just as Stephanie’s story is more common in Illinois than she or I realized, I hear similar accounts from rape victims across the country. Investigations by non-profit organizations and national and local media outlets have uncovered rape kit backlogs in numerous cities, which demonstrates we have a national problem on our hands. In the past year alone, rape kit backlogs have been discovered in Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit, Nashville, Baltimore, San Diego, and Oakland.

The national arrest rate for rape is at 24 percent—the lowest rate for all violent crimes—a strong indication that justice is not working as well as it should for rape victims. One simple step to address the issue would be to send rape kits for testing.

National studies have shown that cases in which rape kit evidence was tested were more likely to proceed through the criminal justice system and lead to arrests. Once New York City adopted the Giuliani-era policy to test every booked rape kit, its arrest rate for rape rose from 40 percent to 70 percent. In Los Angeles, a recent decision to test every booked rape kit uncovered DNA evidence from suspects in other rape cases.

My research in Illinois, the first state-wide analysis of the rape kit backlog, appeared in a Human Rights Watch report, “‘I Used to Think the Law Would Protect Me’: Illinois’s Failure to Test Rape Kits.” With comprehensive testing data from 127 of 267 jurisdictions in Illinois, we found that only 1,474 of the 7,494 rape kits booked into evidence since 1995 could be confirmed as tested. That suggests 80 percent of rape kits may never have been examined.

Yet there is good news for Illinois. A new law, the 2010 Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act, championed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, has the potential to remedy the state’s rape kit backlog. The law, enacted September 1, 2010, makes Illinois the first state to require law enforcement officials to send track rape kit data, and send every rape kit in police custody to the crime lab for DNA testing within 10 days. You can read more about the efforts in Illinois in this recent Huffington Post article by Lisa Madigan.

In my experience, rape kit backlogs seem to be found im many places one decides to investigate. Which means laws alone are not enough. We have to give law enforcement the support they need to do their jobs. State and federal governments have to allocate the resources, training, technical support and funding to make sure every kit is tested.

A few months ago, I spoke again with Stephanie. She recalled for me how she pursued her case in the months after the rape. The detective assigned to her case worked the night shift. So every night she would set her alarm for 3 a.m., wake up, and call the station, hoping to reach him and get the case moving. “How stupid of me,” she said, “to have expected anything to come of those calls.”

In the words of a police officer I spoke with in Illinois said, “We need to do everything we can to encourage rape victims to come forward. One way we do that here is to make sure that we do everything in our power to solve their case.”

We all agree–rape victims like Stephanie should never feel “stupid” for expecting perpetrators to be brought to justice and prevented from raping again. With Illinois’s new law, the state is turning the page on its rape kit backlog and giving survivors like Stephanie a better shot at justice.

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