As states across the country have opened their legislative sessions since the start of the new year, ENDTHEBACKLOG has been watching closely for rape kit reforms. Starting in 2010, the legislatures in Illinois, Texas and Colorado blazed the trail for mandating the testing of all rape kits booked into police evidence. Other states are beginning to follow their lead to varying degrees.
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.
In the quest to catch violent perps, rape kits can be a key ally – but only if they're tested. Rape kit testing can identify serial rapists and unknown assailants as well as exonerate innocent suspects. The fact that so many DNA samples have sat on shelves in evidence rooms for years sends negative messages to victims and encourages culprits, says Sarah Tofte, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which presses for rape kit testing.
Recently, the rape kit backlog has been an increasingly common topic in news stories from across the country, from Ohio and Illinois to Texas and Tennessee.
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.
There has been a flurry of reports in the news recently about the steps several cities across the country have taken to eliminate their rape kit backlogs. These cities are in varying stages of analyzing their untested kits and re-engaging the survivors whose kits were part of the backlog. Two of the cities are located in states—Illinois and Texas—that have passed legislation requiring the testing of all rape kits booked into evidence. The others are located in Ohio, where the Attorney General has encouraged law enforcement agencies to test all kits.
A corrections officer in Illinois has been charged with sexually assaulting a 10-year-old child in 1997 after a rape kit that was part of a backlog in Harvey, Illinois was finally tested. The case is another powerful and deeply troubling example that every untested rape kit represents the failure to bring justice to a survivor and to protect the public.
Polly Poskin, Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, took some time to speak with me about her work to end sexual violence in Illinois, the progress on there on the rape kit backlog and the culture of violence against women. Her words were incredibly informed and powerful and this transcript hardly seems to do them justice. We are pleased to be sharing this interview with you today.
A young woman, Stephanie (not her real name), came to see me in my New York office. She had been raped in Chicago two years earlier, and had heard from an advocate there for rape victims that I was writing a report on untested DNA evidence from rape cases in Illinois. I took her for coffee so we could get to know each other before I interviewed her, and we talked about her teaching job, her move to New York City and my new son.