Scru­ti­niz­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence

Our view: Scale of Md.’s back­log of untested rape kits should set off alarm bells

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.