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2011: The Year of National Rape Kit Backlog Reform

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The end of a year inspires bold predictions for the next one. At the end of this year, I am predicting that 2011 will be a year of unprecedented reform of the backlog of untested rape kits in the United States. Given the movement we saw in 2010 -- communities came together to advocate for reform, several cities and one state enacted sweeping policy changes, and the White House announced a new federal initiative -- this is one prediction that could very well come true.

For the past several years, news of the rape kit backlog focused on the problem -- the discoveries of tens of thousands of untested sexual assault evidence kits ("rape kits") in police storage facilities across the country. A rape kit contains evidence collected from the body of a sexual assault victim in the immediate aftermath of the crime. It is an invasive and sometimes traumatic process that takes four to six hours. When a victim undergoes the examination to collect a rape kit, both she and the public reasonably assume that the kit will be tested. But, as more and more backlogs were revealed around the country, it became clear that, all too often, rape kits are not making it to the crime laboratory for testing.

The news of rape kit backlogs was shocking to the public, devastating to survivors of sexual violence, disappointing to victim advocates, and humbling for law enforcement. We understood the lost opportunities for justice and healing contained in those untested kits. DNA from the kit can identify an unknown rapist, confirm the identity of a known assailant, corroborate the victim's account, and exonerate innocent suspects. In a jurisdiction like New York City, with a long-standing policy to test every rape kit booked into police evidence, the arrest rate for rape skyrocketed from 40 percent to 70 percent once mandatory rape kit testing was implemented.

Just as importantly, rape kit testing sends a powerful message to rape victims that their cases matter, and sends assailants the message that they will be held accountable. It affirms a victim's decision to report a rape to the police and it puts would-be perpetrators on notice that there will be consequences for their crimes. Not testing rape kits sends the opposite message.

Not only is rape kit reform the right thing to do, it's also politically popular. Preliminary results from a national Harris Poll show that 74 percent of the public supports testing of all rape kits, both in stranger and non-stranger rapes, and 85 percent support legislation requiring that all rape kits be tested. These findings show strong public support for rape kit reform even in these difficult times for state budgets.

With such powerful reasons to test rape kits, it's no wonder that this country is moving towards significant rape kit reform. And the changes we have seen in the past year are astounding.

Cities and states are going into their storage facilities and counting their rape kits to assess whether they have a backlog. This year, jurisdictions including Dallas, Detroit, Cleveland, and San Antonio publicly acknowledged that they have backlogs -- the first step towards fixing the problem.

Jurisdictions with backlogs are finding the resources to test their rape kits, and changing their policies to prevent future backlogs. Los Angeles announced this month that their backlog of 12,500 untested kits is nearly eliminated and policies are in place that require that every rape kit submitted to the sheriff 's office or the police department be tested. San Francisco passed a city-wide law which requires efficient, comprehensive rape kit testing. Cleveland changed its policy to ensure that every rape kit in police storage is sent to the crime lab for testing, and Detroit has established a task force to assess the nature of its backlog and identify sustainable solutions to its backlog.

State legislatures are introducing and enacting laws that require state-wide tracking and testing of rape kits. Illinois, after learning that 80 percent of rape kits booked into police evidence in the past ten years were never tested, became the first state to require that all rape kits be located, tracked, and tested. A bill in California to require rape kit tracking sailed through the Assembly before the Governor vetoed it.

The federal government is offering leadership, resources, and research to fix the problem. Congress has introduced several rape kit reform bills that would require stronger funding for and tracking of rape kit evidence. The White House announced a new rape kit backlog pilot project overseen by the National Institute of Justice, which will award three to five applicant jurisdictions grants to come up with a plan to eliminate their rape kit backlog, implement the plan, and research best practices. And a broad coalition of sexual assault, human rights, and criminal justice groups like the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV), the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC), the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the Joyful Heart Foundation (JHF) have joined forces to advocate for systemic change.

So, for 2011, I predict that more cities will count their rape kits and come forward with news of their own backlogs. I bet that more jurisdictions will come up with plans to eliminate their untested rape kits and vigorously search and find funding to do it. I believe that more states will follow Illinois's lead, and pass comprehensive rape kit reform legislation. Congress will pass a bi-partisan rape kit bill, and the National Institute of Justice rape kit backlog pilot project will bring immediate support to grantee jurisdictions.

While the actions of elected officials, policymakers, advocates, and law enforcement in 2010 shaped my prediction for rape kit reform in 2011, it's the stories I hear from individuals about their commitment to the cause that inspire my belief that bold reform is not just possible, but probable.

This month, I received an email from a Kentucky high school student named Ella. She is a member of her state's youth government conference, the Kentucky Youth Assembly. As a member, she got to choose one piece of mock legislation she wanted to introduce, and she presented a bill to eliminate her state's rape kit backlog. She wanted to share with me that the bill passed the house and senate of her assembly, with 95% of the students voting in favor. Although the Governor of the mock assembly vetoed the bill due to cost reasons, Ella was undeterred in her commitment to bringing rape kit reform to her state. She noted to me, "While this was not actually presented to our state government, it was really neat to see that once people hear and understand this problem, most of them are ready to take action to reverse the situation. Hopefully the legislators in my state will react in the same way when they become aware of our backlog."

I hope--and believe--so, too.

For more information on how you can help end the backlog, go to: endthebacklog.org.