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Sexual assault survivors deserve better in Maryland

The Baltimore Sun is to be commended for its diligent focus on the backlog of untested rape kits in Maryland, the slow but steady progress being undertaken by some state agencies and legislators, and the impact of the backlog on survivors of sexual assault and broader community safety.

What is concerning, however, are the recent comments by Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger that dismiss efforts to implement legislation to test all rape kits, removing discretion from law enforcement and thus mandating reform.

As an organization dedicated to eliminating the rape kit backlog nationwide and advocating on behalf of survivors of sexual assault, the Joyful Heart Foundation stands with national experts, prosecutors and leaders in law enforcement in strongly refuting these statements, which are no more than excuses that deprive survivors of sexual assault of their right to justice.

Every year, thousands of individuals who have been sexually assaulted take the step of reporting the crime to the police. They submit to an invasive examination of their bodies and have evidence collected in a process that typically takes four to six hours. The evidence is saved in a Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit — a rape kit.

DNA evidence is an invaluable investigative tool. When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant, reveal serial offenders and exonerate the wrongly convicted. Rapists are often serial offenders who are engaged in other crimes, including domestic violence and murder. They commit crimes against strangers, intimate partners and acquaintances. This is why we support the mandatory submission and testing of every rape kit booked into evidence and connected to a reported sexual assault, regardless of whether the assailant is already known to the victim. Testing every rape kit and entering DNA results into the national database creates case connections that have proven useful to investigations and prosecutions across the country.

Mandating the swift testing of every sexual assault kit sends a powerful message to survivors that they — and their cases — matter. It sends a message to perpetrators that they will be held accountable for their crimes.

Yet too often the decision is made not to test these kits.

Detroit has become one of the best examples of what a city can do when it has the political will to address its backlog. In 2009, officials discovered a backlog of 11,341 untested kits. Testing has resulted in 2,616 DNA matches and the identification of 784 potential serial rapists, resulting in 78 convictions to date. DNA from these offenders has been linked to crimes committed in 40 states and Washington, D.C.

In January, the Maryland State Attorney General's Office released an audit report that found 3,700 untested rape kits statewide. Allowing these kits to remain untested means cases remain unsolved, serial rapists go undetected and survivors wait for justice.

We know ending Maryland's backlog requires resources. That's why we — and our partners — worked with allies in the federal government, led by Maryland's own former Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, to dedicate resources to help fix the problem. These federal funds provide much-needed support for communities as they work to end their backlogs and secure justice for survivors. The funds also remove the "resource" barrier for law enforcement officials who cite lack of funding as a reason to shelve rape kits before testing for valuable DNA.

In the last two years, more than 20 states have passed laws requiring sexual assault kit audits or mandatory submission guidelines. To date, only eight states have laws that require testing of both current and backlogged kits, leaving the decision to send kits for testing up to law enforcement in the remaining 42 states. Maryland has made attempts toward reform, but a bill sponsored by Del. Shelly Hettleman that would have mandated testing did not succeed this legislative session.

We urge Maryland legislators to enact meaningful rape kit reform immediately. Survivors deserve better.

Ilse Knecht (Twitter: @endthebacklog) is the director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation. Background and further information on the rape kit backlog is available at www.endthebacklog.org.

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