Every 98 seconds someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. That means that more than 500 people experience sexual violence every day. We live in a society where sexual violence is seen and discussed frequently, from television dramas, to the #MeToo movement, and to assaults committed on college campuses. Yet our responses have not changed much in this supposed “awareness era.” With every story shared and accusations becoming public, all we have done is normalize the behavior. We “feel for survivors” and criticize offenders on social media and in everyday conversations. However, our lack of action is seen in our policies, where thousands of victims have been denied justice.
After someone, male or female, has experienced sexual assault, they are transported to the hospital where they are questioned, prodded, poked, photographed, and examined for three to five hours. Once the exam is complete, the nurse then seals the evidence in a box and hands it over to law enforcement. These officers are then entrusted with this evidence in order to achieve justice for victims of this brutality by testing them and finding the assailant. However, most of these kits end up stacked on shelves in police and forensic lab storage units, never to be looked at again.
According to End the Backlog, it is estimated that over 200,000 untested rape kits are sitting on storage shelves. These kits have simply never been tested due to a lack of policies and protocols for comprehensive kit testing, a lack of sexual assault training among law enforcement personnel, and a lack of resources.
Furthermore, the majority of the backlog occurred due to the fact that most jurisdictions do not have systems for counting, tracking, or testing rape kits. Since the backlog has been discovered, there has been more effort to enact legislation for handling rape kits, ultimately resulting in the passing of the SAFER (Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting) Act in 2013. The goal of the SAFER Act was to create standardized practices for timely rape kit testing, in order to reduce the current backlog and to ensure that a backlog does not occur in the future. However, a line in the introduction clearly states that these are simply recommendations for handling rape kits and not mandated guidelines:
“The recommendations in this document are not mandated by any governing body; they are provided as recommended best practices based on research, well-established processes from other disciplines, extensive professional experience of the working group members, and input from the public.”
While this act is well-intentioned and important for the future of rape kit testing, there is still no standardization among states. This means that states can enact their own best standards of practice or simply ignore the recommendations, continuing to deny justice for thousands of victims. Many states have proposed or enacted some sort of reform, but there are still others that have failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the backlog and the detrimental impact this has on victims.
In addition to simply not testing rape kits, another form of injustice has been uncovered. A CNN investigation recently found that police had destroyed rape kits in at least 400 cases before the statutes of limitations expired. This destruction has occurred since 2010 and almost 80% were never tested for DNA evidence. While most of the attention has gone to untested kits, the destruction of rape kits is a lesser-known and even more vital problem: without the evidence, victims cannot receive their justice. This is also evidence of a more pervasive societal issue when treating rape victims. Rather than being treated like victims, they are often treated as suspects where their actions are questioned and they must prove their case in order to be believed. The burden of proof, normally reserved for determining guilt of an offender, is placed on victims, where they must prove they are telling the truth.
These injustices continue even after rape kit testing has shown to be vital in closing cases. When Detroit began testing their kits, they found over 2,000 matches in their DNA databases, also identifying 821 potential serial rapists. This shows that rape kits contain crucial evidence for finding and prosecuting offenders. In addition, the testing of rape kits has played a role in overturning 195 convictions for rape, murder, and other crimes since 1992, where people were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison.
Therefore, while more awareness has been brought to rape victims and rape kit injustice, there is still more work to be done. We first need to change how we address victims’ claims of sexual violence in the rape culture we currently live in. Every day women and men are shamed, blamed, and questioned about the role they had in their own victimization. Sex workers are scoffed at when they report; cases are turned down and charges are dropped based on the perceived success at trial; victims’ sexual history is aired in open court, all leading to a revictimization of the victim by the criminal justice system. The same system that was made to achieve justice for all, to protect victims and punish wrong-doers, engages in their own form of violence – not believing victims. The system needs to change but society must change with it, because in the time it took to read this article, another person was sexually assaulted.
Elizabeth Twitty is a doctoral student in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University.