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Opinion | Our priorities in rape cases are out of wack: SAK backlog has become a big problem

Milam's Musings

By Brett Milam
On March 11, 2014

The rape kit backlog, more accurately known as a sexual assault kit (SAK) is one of the most egregious problems facing police precincts and crime labs across the United States.

After someone is sexually assaulted in the United States, the victim's body acts as the "crime scene." The individual undergoes a grueling four-to-six hour examination of their entire body for the perpetrator's DNA. That DNA is collected into a SAK, but the kits go largely untested.

DNA evidence sitting untested in a laboratory means perpetrators go uncaught. These kits go untested for a variety of reasons including lack of resources, personnel and perhaps most vexing, precincts not willing to direct priority to rape cases. The latter is the work of rape culture at play. That is, blaming the victim for the assault.

The Department of Justice's 2011 report, "The Road Ahead: Unanalyzed Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases," stated that many jurisdictions do not send a SAK to be tested because the victim is a prostitute, on drugs or mentally ill.

Such biases against victims in our criminal justice system should be considered unacceptable.

According to the report, the roadblocks to ending the backlog are likely worse than one can imagine.

"A recent National Institute of Justice (NIJ) survey found that four in 10 of the nation's law enforcement agencies - 43 percent - do not have a computerized system for tracking forensic evidence, either in their inventory or after it is sent to the crime lab," the report said.

There are no numbers on how pervasive the backlog is because most jurisdictions do not track the number of kits. However, the federal government has estimated the number to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Also worth keeping in mind is the unique nature of a sexual assault. Once a SAK is tested, especially one from years back, the process of notifying the victim is tricky. It seems counterintuitive: wouldn't you want to know new evidence was discovered about your attacker? But half the victims do not want to be notified. Some do not want to become steeped in the criminal justice system, some have put it past them through counseling and a myriad of other reasons.

In conjunction with that complication is the varying statute of limitations across the states on sexual assaults. If there is an untested SAK from ten years ago, but the statute of limitations on sexual assault is only five years, then that clearly creates a problem.

Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) gets it just right.

"It's appalling that tens of thousands of rapists remain free, even though police possess the evidence to identify and convict them," he said.

Fortunately with pressure from organizations like RAINN, there has been great progress in tackling this problem.

New York City had a backlog of 17,000 kits in 1999. Within four years, they eliminated it. According to End the Backlog, the cost incurred was $12 million. They used a "forklift approach" wherein they outsourced the kits to private crime labs.

More promising was that after NYC's new policy of testing every SAK in police custody, the arrest rate for rape jumped from 40 percent to 70.

So we know this can be done. To help with that endeavor, Vice President Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder have recently stated that in President Obama's proposed 2015 budget, $35 million would be allocated to communities across the United States to clear the backlog.

"We look forward to working with members of Congress from both parties to secure the passage of this budget proposal. This is not a partisan issue," Holder said.

He is absolutely correct. This is not a partisan issue in the slightest. I certainly have spilled many words on the Student's pages decrying the federal government and where they go astray, but this is something they should be doing. In fact, given that it costs $1,200 to $1,500 to test only one SAK, $35 million seems like a paltry sum. Progress has to start somewhere, though.

There is something else the federal government could do that would help the backlog: end the War on Drugs. Much of the resources, personnel and priority that are taken away from sexual assault cases are dedicated to fighting this 40-year-old fruitless war.

To enforce the drug laws in the United States costs $42 billion annually. Now compare that to the $35 million we allocate to addressing rape cases and consider that it took $12 million to eliminate the backlog in just NYC. Our priorities are clearly disproportioned.

Maybe if our federal, state, and local governments and police precincts declared a War on Rape with real victims, then the backlog problem wouldn't be a problem anymore.


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