THE BLOG
07/19/2010 12:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

For Rape Victims, a Dead End on Justice

The young woman, Stephanie, came to see me in my New York office. She had been raped in Chicago two years earlier, and had heard from an advocate there for rape victims that I was writing a report on untested DNA evidence from rape cases in Illinois. I took her for coffee so we could get to know each other before I interviewed her, and we talked about her teaching job, her move to New York City, and my new son.

Then, in the middle of this everyday conversation, Stephanie said: "After this experience, I don't feel safe anymore. I am a tough girl, but it made me feel like if something happened, the law isn't there for me. It doesn't really work."

Stephanie (not her real name) was talking about the fact that the DNA evidence, known as a "rape kit" -- collected over a period of hours in the emergency room with medical personnel examining her entire body -- had never been tested. Her rapist had never been interviewed by the police, much less arrested. And now, two years later, she was trying to come to terms with the way the criminal justice system failed her.

I spoke to Stephanie at the early stages of my research into the rape kit backlog in Illinois. What I suspected, but had not yet confirmed, was that there were many survivors like her who had seen nothing of consequence happen with their rape case. What I found was worse than I imagined: the vast majority of DNA evidence collected from rape victims in Illinois is never tested. This backlog is symptomatic of an overall failure by the Illinois criminal justice system to respond adequately to sexual assault crimes. The arrest rate for rape in Illinois of just 11 percent.

Just as Stephanie's story is more common in Illinois than she or I realized, I hear similar accounts from rape victims across the country. Investigations by Human Rights Watch and national and local media outlets have uncovered rape kit backlogs in numerous cities--demonstrating we have a national problem on our hands. In the past year alone, rape kit backlogs have been discovered in Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit, Nashville, Baltimore, San Diego, and Oakland.

The national arrest rate for rape is a shamefully low 22 percent - the lowest rate since the government started keeping statistics - a strong indication that the criminal justice system is not working for rape victims. One simple step to address the issue would be to send rape kits for testing.

National studies have shown that cases in which rape kit evidence was tested were more likely to proceed through the criminal justice system and lead to arrests. Once New York City adopted the Giuliani-era policy to test every booked rape kit, its arrest rate for rape rose from 40 percent to 70 percent. In Los Angeles, a recent decision to test every booked rape kit uncovered DNA evidence from suspects in other rape cases.

My research, the first state-wide analysis of the rape kit backlog, appears in a Human Rights Watch report issued today, "'I Used to Think the Law Would Protect Me': Illinois's Failure to Test Rape Kits." With comprehensive testing data from 127 of 267 jurisdictions in Illinois, we found that only 1,474 of the 7,494 rape kits booked into evidence since 1995 could be confirmed as tested. That suggests 80 percent of rape kits may never have been examined.

Compounding the sense that Illinois has a troubling response to rape was the fact that in response to our requests for data, cities and municipalities sent us the addresses, telephone numbers, and Social Security numbers of victims and suspects--including the names of child sexual abuse victims, a chilling failure to protect victims' privacy.

For Illinois, at least, there is some good news. A new law, the 2010 Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act, championed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, has the potential to remedy the state's rape kit backlog. The state legislature passed it this spring and it was signed into law this week by Governor Pat Quinn, making Illinois the first state to require law enforcement officials to send sexual violence evidence to crime labs for DNA testing within 10 days. The new law could make Illinois a nationwide model, but the lack of funding for testing remains a source of concern.

In my experience, rape kit backlogs seem to be found wherever one decides to investigate. Which means laws alone are not enough. States have to allocate the resources, lab positions, and funding to make sure every kit is tested.

A few months ago, I spoke again with Stephanie. She recalled for me how she pursued her case in the months after the rape. The detective assigned to her case worked the night shift. So every night she would set her alarm for 3 a.m., wake up, and call the station, hoping to reach him and get the case moving.

Recently, she found out the truth. The police told her they had decided to end the investigation in her case without testing her kit or making an arrest, in part because she had been drinking the night of her rape. "How stupid of me," she said, "to have expected anything to come of those calls."

Rape victims like Stephanie should never be made to feel "stupid" for expecting perpetrators to be brought to justice and prevented from raping again. Rather, it is law enforcement who should learn from Stephanie's forever-tarnished faith in a system she once believed in.