Last week, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Illinois State Police have completed testing and analysis of the 4,000 kits that were part of the rape kit backlog in Illinois, a milestone in the effort to end the backlog of untested rape kits.
It was three and a half years ago, July of 2010, that I was sitting at a cubicle in New York City with boxes and boxes of police records surrounding me. I was an intern for Human Rights Watch, where staff members were readying their second report about rape kit backlog in the United States. It was about the backlog in Illinois, titled “I Used to Think the Law Would Protect Me.”
Stephanie, the survivor whose words are quoted in the report title, did everything asked of survivors in the aftermath of sexual assault: she reported her rape, went to the hospital to get a rape kit administered and followed up repeatedly with the Chicago Police Department to inquire about her case. She waited years for justice that she never found.
“After this experience, I don’t feel safe anymore. I used to think that if something happened to me, the law would protect me. I don’t think it will 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.”
The report was authored using data that HRW received in response to more than 260 requests for public from Illinois to find out the extent of the rape kit backlog. It took over a year and hundreds upon hundreds of letters, phone calls and emails to collect the information. The researcher, Sarah Tofte, and statistician spent months analyzing it, finally determining that of 7,494 rape kits entered into law enforcement evidence over the past 15 years by the 127 agencies that responded to the public records requests, only 1,474—or 19.7%—could be confirmed as tested. One in five. 4,000 kits were in storage. Almost 2,000 had been destroyed before being tested.
Back at my cubicle, the report was just being released. I was still combing through police reports—redacting some of the 1,000+ names of victims that had been erroneously submitted to HRW in response to the requests, another troubling indicator of what was happening in Illinois—when I learned that Governor Pat Quinn had signed the Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act, championed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, into law.
The law made Illinois the first state in the country to implement comprehensive rape kit reform. Since then, Texas and Colorado have passed similar legislation, and law enforcement agencies in Ohio now follow a policy implemented by its Attorney General to submit all kits for testing.
The law also set Illinois on a trajectory of reform—on the path of righting the injustice that the backlog of untested rape kits represents. It required law enforcement to send every rape kit booked into policy custody for testing within 10 days, with testing to be completed in six months. It also required state police to determine the size of the backlog in the state and come up with out a timeline and process for ending it. The law was unfunded, but Illinois found the money—over $.3.3 million in total.
Today, more than three years later, testing and analysis of the 4,000 kits that were part of Illinois’s rape kit backlog has been completed. More than 927 profiles of suspects were matched in CODIS, the national DNA databank.
Though additional steps are needed in Illinois to develop comprehensive policies to notify survivors of the status of their cases, to ensure continued transparency from the law enforcement agencies as they pursue these leads, and to guarantee that police and crime labs have all the funding they need to maintain their commitment to testing all rape kits within a timely manner, we are deeply encouraged by these results and what they mean for the survivors whose kits were in the backlog, for survivors who will report their rapes in the future, for law enforcement who now have more tools to pursue leads and seek justice, and for all those who look towards Illinois as a model of rape kit reform. We’ll continue to be watching.
To advocate for reform in your state, click here.
- By Lendon Ebbels, December 23, 2013