The White House Report: A Commitment, a Call to Action and a Look at the Work that Remains

Yesterday, the White House Council on Women and Girls and the Office of the Vice President released an unprecedented report called Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action. The report offers the most recent data on the prevalence of rape and sexual assault across the country and a critique of the criminal justice system’s response. It also highlights actions taken by the Administration toward ending sexual violence and areas where additional focus is needed. 

The report opens with the staggering statistics we know far too well: nearly 1 in 5 women, or nearly 22 million, and 1 in 71 men, or almost 1.6 million, have been raped in their lifetimes. It then delves deeper into the impact this violence has both on survivors and communities. For survivors, such trauma can result in long-term physical and mental health problems. For communities, studies have found the economic costs to range from $87,000 to $240,776 per assault.

In addressing the response, the report first focuses on college campuses, calling for schools to adopt better policies and practices both to prevent assaults and respond more effectively when they occur. It also announces that President Obama is establishing a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The Task Force will create model practices, ensure compliance among institutions with their legal obligations, enhance coordination among federal agencies and increase public awareness about institutional responses to sexual violence. 

As to the criminal justice system, the White House report calls out the nation’s very low arrest rates for sexual assault, citing the National Crime Victimization Survey, which found that “approximately 12% of the 283,200 annual rape or sexual assault victimizations between 2005 – 2010 resulted in an arrest.” The report attributes this abysmal response in part to many members of law enforcement not believing survivors or making assumptions based on how the survivor is reacting to the trauma. They cite examples of law enforcement discouraging survivors from reporting their rapes, questioning the survivor’s own behavior and even threatening charges for false reporting. 

The report also highlights the rape kit backlog as a significant factor in low prosecution rates. It points out that law enforcement policies regarding the prioritization of kits for testing are inconsistent, and that even when kits are submitted to a crime lab, they may sit untested for several months. It explains that the demand for DNA testing has consistently outpaced crime lab capacity.

In terms of solutions to the lack of arrests and prosecutions for rape, the report discusses increasing funding for multidisciplinary Sexual Assault Response Teams, specialized training for law enforcement and prosecutors on how trauma can affect survivors, and addressing the rape kit backlog. We know that rape kit testing can identify an unknown assailant, affirm the survivor's account of the assault and discredit the suspect, identify possible serial rapists, and even exonerate innocent suspects. Simply put, testing rape kits can bring healing and justice to survivors. Not testing rape kits allows perpetrators to get away with their crimes. 

The White House report points to the success of the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) DNA Backlog Reduction Program, which provides funds to 120 state and local crime labs for DNA testing. NIJ’s action-research projects in Detroit and Houston are specifically highlighted. The report shares some preliminary results from these projects, including the shocking number of serial rapists identified by testing backlogged kits in Detroit. Joyful Heart has been involved in Detroit's efforts to end its backlog as a national partner on the NIJ project, providing a national perspective on the backlog, as well as guidance to ensure reforms are survivor-centered.

The report also notes that clearing a backlog is just the first step in the larger process of bringing justice to survivors and holding offenders accountable. NIJ's DNA Backlog Reduction Program cannot be fully effective unless police departments submit evidence to the lab for testing in the first place. And jurisdictions desperately need resources to follow up on and fully investigate leads from testing, to move cases forward to prosecution and to re-engage survivors.

While this very important White House report demonstrates the Administration’s deep commitment to ending sexual violence and improving the responses of our government, our criminal justice system, our schools and our communities, it also identifies that there is still a great deal of work to be done. 

To start, elected officials at all levels must commit not only to providing jurisdictions with funding to process DNA evidence at their crime labs, but must also invest fully in transparency and holding law enforcement agencies accountable for all of the untested rape kits languishing in their custody. Elected officials must engage survivors and advocacy communities to create concrete and survivor-centered strategies and reforms for ending the backlog

For their part, law enforcement must count, track and test the kits in their evidence rooms—and believe and honor survivors' decisions to participate in the criminal justice process. 

As community members, we must all take a stand against a culture and institutions that tolerate sexual violence and call on our representatives to make these changes. Together, we can end the backlog. 

- By Elizabeth Swavola, January 23, 2014

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