Back in 2009, over 11,000 kits were found abandoned in a Detroit Police storage facility. After processing just 1,600 of them so far, Detroit has identified about 100 serial rapists and ten convicted rapists. Those perpetrators have moved on from Michigan to commit similar crimes in 23 other states.
Of course, Detroit is not alone. Nationwide, there are an estimated 400,000 untested rape kits. One of our favorite actress/activists Law and Order: SVU’s Mariska Hargitay (read her Feministing Five interview here) has been raising awareness about this issue for awhile now. Her organization, The Joyful Heart Foundation, has launched a project called End The Backlog to pressure cities and states to prioritize testing their kits. (She’s also producing a documentary about the problem.) And thankfully, 17 states have proposed new legislation to address their backlogs.
There’s a ton of reasons that the rape kit backlog is national shame. For one thing, as Hargitay notes, “One would assume that if someone endures a four- to six-hour invasive examination, that that evidence would be handled with care.” And while police departments say testing evidence is expensive and they just don’t have the resources, they’re making choices about which cases they believe are worth moving forward. Sarah Tofte, the director of policy and advocacy for Joyful Heart, explained to ThinkProgress, “They’re making subjective judgments about whether they’re likely to get a conviction, what this rape looks like, whether the victim is credible, and what the victim’s worth to society is…Ultimately, it’s about, does this victim deserve justice?”
In other words, if we didn’t live in a rape culture in which all but the most “perfect victims” are doubted, you can bet your ass there wouldn’t be such a backlog. As Hargitay said, “To me, this is the clearest and most shocking demonstration of how we regard these crimes.”
Of course, the most urgent and concrete reason we should be testing rape kits is that they can identify rapists. (That’s kinda the point.) And since most rapists are serial rapists, that helps prevent future assaults. The stats from Detroit are similar to those in other cities and states that have tackled their backlogs: Once New York City processed its 17,000-kit backlog in 2001, the arrest rate for rape cases jumped from 40 percent to 70 percent. After working through 2,000 untested kits, Ohio has found nearly 200 matches with DNA in a criminal database.
A couple weeks ago, the White House announced they’d devote $35 million in next year’s budget to grants for processing unopened kits. We’ll be watching closely to see if congressional Republicans block that modest effort to help communities bring rapists to justice and prevent sexual violence.
Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.