The federal Department of Justice and New York City officials recently announced grants totaling nearly $80 million to help clear the massive backlog of rape kits languishing, untested, in police evidence rooms across the country. The funding will enable the processing of more than 70,000 untested kits in more than 40 law enforcement jurisdictions, making a dent in the several hundred-thousand deep backlog that exists nationwide. In so doing, perhaps the percentage of rapists who ultimately serve time will be boosted as well. The percentage right now? Two. Meanwhile, jurisdictions that have cleared their backlogs have put hundreds of serial rapists behind bars.
The Grueling Process of Rape Kit Evidence Collection
In the immediate aftermath of a rape – ideally within hours, and in all cases within 72 hours – women are given the option of preserving DNA evidence of the assault. The evidence from this sexual assault forensic exam goes into a “rape kit,” which, in theory, will be processed and used in the prosecution of the assailant.
The process is extremely invasive. During the examination, victims are typically asked to undress; swabs are taken from the victim’s skin, genitalia, anus and mouth; and the victim is photographed extensively in order to preserve evidence of bruising and injuries. If the victim chooses to undergo the entire examination, it can take up to six hours.
In some jurisdictions, certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) can help relieve some of the trauma of the exam. However, many jurisdictions do not have SANEs or otherwise specially-trained medical personnel equipped to best respond to victims in the aftermath of a sexual assault. As a result, most victims feel depressed and violated after the examination. Some victims even describe their interactions with hospitals as having been “re-raped.”
After going through such an invasive process, victims naturally expect the evidence will be tested. However, that is often not the case. While the exact number of untested rape kits is unknown, the federal government has previously estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of them. Even when the kits are tested, it can be years between collection and testing – sometimes over ten years. With states’ statute of limitations for rape generally fixed at around three to five years, this renders the evidence effectively useless – at least for
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