Scrutinizing sexual violence

Why are there 3,500 untested rape kits? The explanations of police and prosecutors fall short.

Even if there are occasions when rape kits need not be tested — if, for example, an alleged assailant has already admitted to sexual contact — it strains credulity to believe that Maryland's total of 3,500 untested rape kits does not represent a significant problem. And we need point no further than the recent evaluation of the Baltimore City Police Department in which officials with the U.S. Department of Justice cited the city's low testing rate (about 15 percent in a four-year period, but the numbers remain in dispute) to make the case.

There are at least two other factors that may be contributing to this situation. The most obvious is money. It costs between $1,000 and $1,500 to complete DNA tests on one rape kit. That puts the backlog's expense in the neighborhood of $5 million, no small amount of money to law enforcement agencies. But that matter can be addressed fairly easily by appropriating the needed funds; the second possibility is more troubling — that people who report sexual assault or similar crimes are not being taken seriously by police and prosecutors.

That victims often run into skepticism or disinterest from authorities has been the long-time claim of advocates for sexual assault victims, and it's the reason that the status of rape kits is even public knowledge in the first place. The Sun's Alison Knezevich and Catherine Rentz collected the information by filing a formal public information request with the Maryland Attorney General's Office, which, in turn, only has the number because state lawmakers last year passed a bill requiring police departments to start providing data.

Rape kit backlogs are a national problem. In Arizona, which has a population only about 10 percent larger than Maryland, a task force recently revealed that the state has 6,424 untested kits. Florida has more than 13,000, Texas more than 18,000, and Michigan more than 15,000, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation. Recently, President Barack Obama signed into law the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act which is intended to improve the handling and storage of rape kits and requires victims to be notified of rape kit results or when they are destroyed.

That's overdue given that providing evidence for a rape kit is no small ordeal for victims in and of itself. Combine a highly invasive procedure that may take up to six hours to complete with the prospect that the kit will just sit in storage somewhere and not even be tested? That's bound to discourage victims from stepping forward. And it certainly doesn't contribute to a rape survivor's recovery to think that evidence was simply set aside.

Even in cases where convictions are assured (or where test results are considered moot because the case may hinge on the question of consent, not whether sexual contact took place), rape kit evidence allows police to create a DNA database of alleged sex offenders. Such an investigative tool can help solve other cases of sexual assault, past and future. But it does police little good in the hunt for serial rapists if a crime lab never tested the samples in the first place.

Finally, the untested kits send a troubling message that sexual assault is still not taken as seriously as it should be. That's not just a police and prosecutorial problem, that's a cultural problem — as the current debacle with Donald Trump now attests. Despite all the women who have stepped forward and the release of a recorded conversation in which Mr. Trump brags about his behavior (which he has explained repeatedly as "locker room talk"), the candidate appears to be gaining ground on Hillary Clinton in some recent polls.

In Maryland now that the scale of the problem is known, state lawmakers need to investigate before deciding what, if any, reforms are necessary. At the very least, the General Assembly ought to seek assurance that rape kit evidence is taken seriously and that testing is not being held back by a lack of funds — or worse, a lack of interest. Sexual violence is simply too common a crime to be treated casually. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five women and 1 in 71 men experience rape at some point in their lives. That's not just a tragedy, it's criminal and ought to be treated that way.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
88°