Most Americans with a general knowledge of our criminal justice system assume that rape kit evidence is sent for testing automatically after it is booked into police evidence. As DNA has played an increasingly important role in our criminal justice system, even laypeople grasp how vital DNA evidence is in resolving rape cases. Rape kit testing can identify an unknown assailant, confirm the presence of a known suspect, affirm a victim's version of events, discredit a suspect's story, identify serial rapists by connecting individual crime scenes, and exonerate innocent suspects. Rape kit testing sends a crucial message to victims that their cases matter. It puts assailants on notice that the criminal justice system takes their crimes seriously.
And yet, experts estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the country—the exact number remains elusive because the federal government does not track rape kit data. In fact, only four states require tracking and testing of rape kit evidence—Illinois, Texas, Colorado by statute, and Ohio through a directive from the Attorney General. Nearly everything we know about the rape kit backlog in cities around the United States comes not from government reporting, but from the hard work of human rights researchers, journalists, and victim's rights advocates.
For the general public, the fact that there is a rape kit backlog is astounding. How could a country known for its tough-on-crime policing let key evidence in rape cases languish? The answers say a lot about how poorly the United States responds to sexual violence, and how far we have to go to realize our commitment to advance women's rights. Those who live close to the reality of sexual violence in the United States—survivors, victim service providers, experts—may be dismayed when another rape kit backlog is uncovered in yet another police storage closest or freezer, but they are not surprised. They know that very few rape cases make it very far in the criminal justice system, and that the rape kit backlog is a tangible symbol of our accumulated criminal justice failures to take rape—and rape victims—seriously.
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