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Mariska Hargitay Headshot

Priorities

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Co-authored with Kym Worthy

Despite the progress we as a nation have made in the movement to end sexual violence, including the recent passage of a more inclusive Violence Against Women Act, much work remains to be done.

Few examples are as clear - or as quantifiable - as the nationwide backlog of untested rape kits. Simply put, the backlog allows rapists to get away with their crimes and, in many cases, to rape again. We cannot know the exact size of the backlog because few jurisdictions count or track their untested kits, but the federal government estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the United States.

Every year, thousands of individuals take the courageous step of reporting their rape to the police. They overcome the terrible, misplaced social stigma of being the victim of sexual violence, they overcome the warnings sometimes uttered by the rapist to keep silent, they overcome the suggestions that these issues ought not to be spoken of, and they speak up. The forensic exam of their bodies, the crime scene, typically takes four to six hours. The evidence is then collected in a "Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit" - a rape kit.

When tested, rape kit evidence identifies unknown assailants, confirms the presence of a known suspect, affirms the survivor's account of the attack, connects the suspect to other unsolved crimes, and exonerates innocent suspects.

And yet, hundreds of thousands of times, a decision is made not to process the evidence. Too difficult to prosecute, too murky, too expensive - not a priority. Even when law enforcement does send a kit to the crime lab for testing, it can sit for months, and in some cases years, before being tested.

Of all violent crimes in the United States, rape has the lowest reporting, arrest and prosecution rates. According to FBI crime data, rape has a 24% arrest rate - the lowest in nearly 40 years of tracking such information. This means that a rape victim has a one in five chance of seeing the perpetrator brought to justice. It also means that a rapist has a 76% chance of getting away with the crime.

Jurisdictions are already beginning to witness the powerful - and not at all surprising - results of testing every rape kit booked into police evidence. New York City cleared its backlog of 17,000 kits and now tests every kit that comes in. Proof of the value of testing every kit: the city's arrest rate for rape has jumped from 40% to 70%, compared with only 24% nationally.

Detroit is another city that now faces the massive task of processing its untested kits - more than 11,000 kits that were transferred to a warehouse by the police and left behind. A grant from the National Institute of Justice allowed the first 400 kits to be tested. The result? Thirty potential serial rapists were found, including a man who raped a twelve-year-old boy, then remained free to rape a five-year old. From those first 400 kits, prosecutors have already secured two convictions, and traced assailants to twelve additional states and the District of Columbia.

Detroit is resolute in its commitment to testing the remaining kits, investigating the cases, and moving them forward so that survivors can be re-engaged in the criminal justice process that failed them so egregiously. But they need assistance.

We have created a fund through the Detroit Crime Commission to raise money so we can continue testing. To date, $50,000 has come in, much of it in $10 and $20 donations, from people who do not have a lot of resources, but who make keeping rapists off the streets a priority - and who want to send a message to survivors that they and their cases matter.

We are greatly encouraged that the federal government, led by Vice President Biden, is making the reduction and elimination of the nationwide rape kit backlog a priority. Even in these harsh economic times, we were thrilled to learn that President Obama allocated $20 million in his recent budget request to address the backlog. This investment that will not only save lives, prevent suffering, hold rapists accountable, and allow jurisdictions to provide justice for survivors, it also has the power to bring much-needed healing. We look forward to working with Members of Congress as they consider final budget proposals this year to ensure that the Department of Justice's efforts to eliminate the backlog remain fully funded.

We must eliminate this backlog. We must give survivors the justice they deserve. We must put dangerous assailants behind bars. The stakes are simply too high.

To learn more about efforts to end the rape kit backlog, go to: http://www.endthebacklog.org.

Mariska Hargitay is the Founder & President of the Joyful Heart Foundation and the Emmy Award-winning star of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Kym Worthy, the first African American and first female to serve as Wayne County Prosecutor, is leading the effort to end the rape kit backlog in Detroit.