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Thousands of Untested Rape Kits an “Inexcusable Injustice”

In the course of their lifetime, nearly 1 in 5 American women will experience rape (sexual penetration without consent). For many of these women, the injustice won’t stop there. Their cases will go cold for years or decades…if not forever.

In fact, according to a report released last week by USA Today, there are at least 70,000 untested rape kits in the United States. As 34 states fail to track untested kits, this is a conservative estimate. The White House, for example, believes that there are close to 400,000 untested kits nationwide.

Rape kits contain forensic DNA evidence collected from victims shortly following a rape. Evidence can include “clothing, fingernail scrapings, and swabs from various body parts”. The collection occurs through an “often invasive process that can take up to six hours to complete”. But the resulting evidence is highly valuable. It can “help identify suspects”, “strengthen criminal cases” leading to “more prosecutions”, and “exonerate the wrongly accused”. For these reasons, experts say “they’ve had many success stories with testing these kits”.

The report of untested rape kits has provoked strong reactions across the nation. In Marion County, Indiana, where only 30% of rape kits have undergone testing since 2000, one expert called it “an inexcusable injustice for potentially thousands of rape victims and a threat to public safety”. Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas) added that “failure to analyze rape kits is shameful” and may lead to the expiration of statues of limitations (deadlines for charging rapists). But most powerful were the reactions of rape victims. In the words of one woman: “When I found out that rape kits weren’t getting tested, that was the next stab in my heart, and I cried for days”.

The causes of the testing backlog are numerous. To begin, the cost to test a single kit is $1,000, an amount that can “stress the budget of local police departments”. Recognizing this cost, Congress passed the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act in 2013, which allocated $750 million for grants to local police forces to support rape kit testing and auditing. While justice officials claim they never received the funds, victims and advocates maintain that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is redirecting the funds to other programs. They also note that the responsible DOJ committee has met only once – over 16 months ago.

In addition to inadequate funds, many police forces lack other necessary resources. In North Carolina, for example, “salaries are not competitive with neighboring states, contributing to a shortage of technicians”. The state also faces insufficient laboratory capacity: “There’s always going to be backlogs in laboratories because the demand is always so high…laboratories are constantly getting all kinds of evidence”.

Given these limitations, many police forces must decide which rape kits to test and not test. As most states “do not have laws setting criteria”, these decisions are often “arbitrary and inconsistent”. Some police forces choose to neglect the kits of “aloof victims” or presumed prostitutes, believing that “what had happened to them was…their own fault”. Others ignore kits when there is “no suspect or no known suspect, even though testing the kits could help identify a suspect”. Furthermore, certain police put aside older kits when there are “immediate cases requiring attention”. Over time, these cases simply “fall through the cracks”.

But there is hope. After hearing the report on untested rape kits, several police forces have “finally pledged action”. The West Lafayette Police Department, for example, says “We are now going to submit all of our sexual-assault kits to a lab”. Similarly, the Leon County Sherriff’s Office has agreed to test its 66 untested kits and institute new practices to prevent future backlogs.

State governments are also getting on board. New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia are considering bills to make kit testing mandatory (as in 6 existing states). Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Oklahoma are examining bills to require inventories of untested kits. North Carolina is building a full-service forensics laboratory and may soon raise technician pay by 10%. Finally, Utah is hiring 5 new technicians and purchasing new lab equipment, including robotics for DNA testing that are “faster, more efficient, and more cost-effective”. Such action is long overdue.

To learn more, please contact Women Organized Against Rape, Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment (PAVE), and the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). To support rape victims, please donate to our partners: Inwood House, Lifeway Network, the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, and Safe Horizon.

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Election 2016 – A Vote for Voting Rights

On Thursday, August 6, the 2016 presidential race will unofficially begin with the first Republican debates. Seventeen candidates will take the stage (10 during the primetime event) to present their platforms and attempt to woo the American voter.

Fittingly, August 6 also marks a milestone in American voting history. It is the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Signed by President Johnson at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Act enforced the 15th amendment to the constitution, which prohibits federal and state governments from denying the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. It thus extended the franchise to millions of minority voters, particularly in the south.

But as the 2016 presidential election approaches, these voting rights are in jeopardy. Empowered by a 2013 Supreme Court decision, which eliminated federal approval of state election laws, numerous states have passed voting restrictions. A further 113 bills are under consideration.

In Texas, for example, the government now requires citizens to present an acceptable ID prior to voting. Acceptable IDs include concealed hand gun permits but exclude student or government employee IDs. This threatens to disenfranchinse 600,000 registered voters in the Lone Star State.

Wisconsin has also implemented a photo ID requirement, as well as a host of other rules. The state has reduced the early voting window from 30 to 12 days, increased the required residency period from 10 to 28 days, restricted absentee ballots, and eliminated weekend and evening early voting times. Such rules could affect at least 300,000 registered voters.

However, the “country’s most rigid and unbending new voter-suppression laws”, may be in North Carolina. The state government has passed laws that “tighten photo identification requirements and restrict early voting and same-day registration”. It also eliminated a program allowing 16- and 17 year-olds to pre-register to vote at 18.

Often, proponents defend these laws as necessary to prevent illegal voting. According to Texan supporters, the laws “prevent voter fraud and assure the public that only US citizens [are] casting ballots”. But a study by Arizona State University reveals only 28 voter fraud convictions since 2000. Only 1 conviction related to voter impersonation.

Hence, critics maintain that the laws’ true goal is to lower electoral participation among minority groups. After all, research suggests that Black and Latino voters are less likely to possess acceptable IDs. They are also less likely to meet residency requirements, as “they tend to have less stable housing arrangements”. Finally, because they are concentrated in large urban centers, they suffer most from long lines due to early voting restrictions. Hence, according to a lawyer for the NAACP, “these laws will have a lasting and decisive impact on the voting rights of African Americans and Latinos…and an impact on the Voting Rights Act itself”.

On the bright side, the courts may invalidate many of these voter suppression laws. A voting rights organization filed a federal lawsuit against Wisconsin’s laws in June. A federal trial on North Carolina’s laws is underway in Winston-Salem. And just yesterday, an appeals judge deemed the Texas rule “unconstitutional”, sending it to the federal courts.

Furthermore, certain state legislatures are considering bills to actually expand voting access. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University counts 464 such bills, including bills to allow automatic voting registration (e.g. after obtaining a driver’s license) and online voting registration.

On this 50th anniversary of the Voting Right Act, let us throw our support behind the bills that advance—not reverse—voting rights in America. To learn more, please contact Project Vote, Rock the Vote[xx], the NAACP, and our partner, the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.