The risk we take with Charlotte's rape kit backlog

From Maile M. Zambuto, Chief Executive Officer of the Joyful Heart Foundation, and Monika Johnson Hostler, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the President of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence:

Recently the Joyful Heart Foundation announced that Charlotte has 1,019 untested rape kits in law enforcement evidence storage facilities. Sadly, Charlotte is not alone. Despite the fact that DNA evidence can be an incredibly powerful tool, the federal government estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of rape kits nationwide that have never been sent to a crime lab for testing.

We can and should do better.

We join experts in calling for the mandatory submission and testing of every rape kit booked into evidence and connected to a reported sexual assault. We stand with every survivor who has reported the crime to police and endured a four-to-six hour invasive examination in search of DNA evidence left behind by the attacker – evidence that can play a critical role in solving and preventing future crimes.

Many reasons are given for not testing every rape kit, including a lack of resources and personnel. Some law enforcement claim that untested kits represent cases they are unable to pursue because the survivor was uncooperative or didn’t want to proceed with the case.

Research has shown that more often than any other crime, law enforcement frequently disbelieve or blame survivors – and that survivors frequently withdraw from the criminal justice process because of how they are treated.

Cities that have taken steps to eliminate their backlog of untested kits are discovering hundreds of violent offenders that have been acting with impunity. In Detroit, 326 potential serial offenders. In Cleveland, 229.

These are offenders who have caused millions of dollars worth of damage to individual victims, their families, and their communities.

The positive news for Charlotte is that now that its backlog is revealed, real reform can begin. The city must commit to test all kits, investigate leads, prosecute cases, re-engage survivors in the process, and enact policies to ensure timely processing of rape kits in the future.

We know this kind of commitment requires resources. The federal government is offering leadership and resources to fix the problem. North Carolina should now join the growing list of states working on legislation to require sexual assault kit audits or some type of mandatory kit submission timelines, testing of all kits, and development of guidelines so that a backlog will not reoccur.

Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. We must do all we can to bring healing and justice to survivors. Rape kit testing sends a message to survivors that they – and their cases – matter. It sends a message to perpetrators that they will be held accountable for their crimes.

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