News Roundup: The High Barriers to Justice

It is estimated that only between 2 and 8 % of rape accusations are false. 

Yet rape victims face one of the steepest barriers to being believed by the criminal justice system, and their cases are the least likely of any violent crime to move forward through prosecution. 

Several news articles over the past few days illustrate just how steep that barrier can be. 

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Reporter Clifford Parody of The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida is investigating the rape kit backlog in Polk County, Florida. Using public records requests, he found that law enforcement agencies there have collected 1,643 rape kits over the past 15 years, but of those, more than half—878—remained in evidence storage. 

The victim-blaming attitudes that permeate all levels of society can be heard in the feedback he received. He quoted one law enforcement official:

“When it comes to sex-crime investigations we find those who initially claimed to be victims lie to you as quickly and as badly as the suspects on many occasions…. You have to be exceptionally cautious before you go put someone in handcuffs and accuse them of raping somebody." 

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In RH Reality Check, reporter Sofia Resnick shares the story of a survivor, Kiyona Phillips. In her case, she knew her alleged attacker. They were out together after celebrating homecoming at Howard University in Washington, D.C. 

She reported the assault—a rare action for most rape victims, as Resnick points out in the article—and went through the rape kit exam, a process that takes 4 – 6 hours to complete, and one that Phillips called “painful and humiliating.” Despite the fact that she reported the assault and completed a rape kit exam, because of the “he said, she said” nature of the case, the prosecutor’s office didn’t move it forward. She believes her kit was never even tested, and he was never charged. As Phillips said in the article: 

“I honestly understand why a lot of people don’t report rape… Because if you’re not half-dead or beat in the face or it’s not recorded in any kind of way, you really have to prove that this happened to you.”

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And Nancy Kaffer of The Detroit Free Press reported on the research completed by the Michigan State University for a National Institute of Justice action-research grant project, which “found case after case marked ‘UTEEC’—unable to establish elements of the crime.” (Joyful Heart served as a national advisor on the grant.)

The article highlights the bias against and disbelief of many “kinds” of victims—biases which resulted in the “UTEEC” classifications. From the article:

“Victims raped by acquaintances were deemed willing participants with morning-after regrets. Teenagers were presumed to have fabricated rape stories to excuse wild, consensual behavior. Women who reported being raped in certain neighborhoods were thought to be prostitutes, filing retaliatory reports for deals gone bad. Victims were warned that lying to police was a crime. Other cases bore notation indicating the victim couldn't be found, or suggesting that the investigation cease unless the victim contacted police again.”

Yet in Detroit, which is currently clearing its backlog of more than 11,000 untested rape kits, more than 326 potential serial rapists have already been indentified—DNA hits connecting to multiple reported rapes—rapes reported by all kinds of victims connected to all kinds of cases.

Over time, Kaffer reports, disbelief of victims became a way of triaging cases and managing an overwhelming workload. While the city of Detroit, which declared bankruptcy in 2013, is an extreme example of an overburdened criminal justice system, it is hardly unique. Many jurisdictions lack the funding and personnel to track and test rape kits, and testing only some kits—and finding reasons not to test others—is cited as way of triaging. 

It’s why testing all rapes kits is important for overcoming the possibility of discretion and victim-blaming. And it’s why we need our elected officials at all levels of government to prioritize the resources these departments so desperately need to test all rape kits and ensure the backlog never happens again. 

For more backlog news, please follow us at @ENDTHEBACKLOG and explore our extensive media archive. If you have any questions about the reporting and rape exam, or if you simply wish to get more information on the criminal justice process, you can find it here.

- Lendon Ebbels, June 26, 2015

ENDTHEBACKLOG is a program of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local,state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help ussend the message that we must take rape seriously.

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