Rape Kit Testing Backlog: A Glowing Neon Sign of Rape Cultures Existence.

Any confusion about the term, "rape culture," can be cleared up with this very simple example. Kelvin Stokes walked the streets for 15 years while the rape kit containing the evidence that proved he is a rapist sat on a shelf. It says something about the way we think of rape as a crime that it's becoming commonplace to hear about two to three year back logs to test a rape kit. 13 years should be an unthinkable length of time to assess evidence in a case of rape, but apparently, it isn't. Considering the degree of investigation that goes into a person's entire life when they make an accusation of rape, scrutiny that becomes part of the public record, it would seem sensible that a rape kit could be tested in no less than 30 days as a strictly legal matter.

In New York, where a previous backlog of 16,000 kits existed, clearing that backlog and testing all of them, resulted in 2,000 DNA matches in the FBI's CODIS system. This touches on the other reason  (as if giving rape victims justice in a timely manner isn't quite a good enough reason) the back log of rape kits is a threat to public health. How many serial rapists could be caught and prosecuted as a result of testing all of these kits? A report released by Human Rights Watch in March of 2009 contained this example:
Catherine was in her forties, living with her young son.  She was awakened at midnight by a stranger who raped her, sodomized her, and forced her to orally copulate him-repeatedly.  Thankfully, her child remained asleep.  When it was over, the police brought her to the Rape Treatment Center.  Like all rape victims, her body was one of the crime scenes.  She consented to the collection of evidence.
The detective was told by the crime lab that it would take at least 8 months to analyze Catherine's rape kit.  The detective said he knew from the "MO" in this crime that the rapist was a repeat offender.  Eight months was too long to wait.  He personally drove the kit to the state lab-where the kit still sat for months.  When it was processed, they got a "cold hit." Catherine's rapist was identified.  He was in the offender database.
During the months Catherine's kit sat on a shelf, unopened, the same rapist attacked at least two other victims-one was a child. 

The documentation on this problem exists. We're being alerted that it is a problem. A quick Google search shows that there hasn't been a complete lack of coverage in the media. That a major US city could have rape kits languishing, untested for 13 years, should be something we'd read about in a futuristic dystopia, with a haughty novelist tossing out the most extreme and disturbing extrapolation of current social, political, judicial and moral issues and our attempts to resolve them. It's not a dystopian novel. It's the current state of the world we live in.

According to the USA Today investigation into the number of untested rape kits nationwide, as of July 1 2015, Richmond city has 257 untested rape kits. If the cost of testing each kit were to come out at the highest end of the cost spectrum, $1,500 per test, it would cost the city $385,500. If the city can find a way to put in a bid for the UCI bicycle races, lay out a budget for a new baseball stadium, pledge hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Washington DC football team in order to induce them to practice here, we should be able to find a way to come up with the money to test our rape kit back log. What does it say to the women of Richmond that all of those things take precedence over testing rape kits? Richmond is projecting an expenditure of 78 million dollars on public safety in fiscal year 2016-2017 (PDF) (Section 2, Fiscal Summaries, under Public Safety). Somehow, that doesn't seem to include the 86 million dollars budgeted for the police department (Section 6, Expenditures by Agency, pg 188). In the combined164 million dollars of Public Safety and police departments budgets, not having the $385,000 to test rape kits demonstrates the level of priority this problem really has for Richmond City government.

According to data taken from the 2008 - 2012 National Crime Victimization Survey, as reported by RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), 32% of sexual assault are reported. Of the 32% who report, 2% result in convictions. Considering that rape kits can go years without being tested, it's not a wonder that more women don't feel it's in their best interest to come forward. The remaining 68% of unreported instances of sexual assaults are assailants that will never face prosecution. How many more prosecutions might succeed if we were testing rape kits in a timely manner?

Here's another set of sobering facts that may contribute to our national inability to have kits tested. The most recent set of data regarding women in law enforcement is from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (PDF), and it only refers to the time period from 1997 - 2008. Women made up 12%-13% of all law enforcement officers in the country. That is law enforcement as a whole though. Women are even less well represented as one begins to look up the chain of command and at investigatory police work. Women just aren't in the kinds of positions that decide what a police department or even specific unit within a department are going to make a priority. Considering the differences in the way men and women are taught about rape, from the time any of us are able to understand the concept, the lack of female input at the higher levels of law enforcement certainly helps to shed some light on why testing rape kits isn't a higher priority.

Rape culture starts with the idea that males are taught that boys will be boys and females are taught that too short a skirt, too many drinks or walking home too late at night will get you raped. The boys will be boys part doesn't include a hefty, regular lesson in what consent is and means. No one would think for a second of telling a car jacking victim that they were partially at fault because they were driving. People will make that assumption about rape victims for a few hundred different reasons.  It's the basis for the attitude that creates excuses for not testing those kits, in as timely a fashion as possible, one of the highest priorities for any police department. If rape kits were a video purporting to have caught Planned Parenthood in the act of nefarious dealings, there would be immediate congressional action and lots of press conferences. Rape kits don't really generate the same kind of click baiting headlines though. They just have some possibility of putting rapists behind bars, which is what we as a society say we want to do with rapists. Taking into consideration our fetish using prisons as the punishment we expect to prevent unwanted behavior, there's also the implied suggestion that we're not really all that interested in preventing people from being rapists.

For all of the controversy that the term "rape culture" has been at the center of, there isn't a cogent argument to suggest that the backlog of untested rape kits is anything but a lack of priority being put into prosecuting rape cases. The arguments about funding and economics ring hollow. Cities and towns across the country find ways to fund every variety of "improvement," so long as someone can make a superficially convincing argument that there's "economic development" somewhere in the deal. Richmond, and it's many priorities ahead of testing it's 257 remaining kits is a good example. Compared to a number of other localities, 257 isn't very many, but Richmond City government is still more interested in spending public funds on sporting events. The existence of the backlog as a national problem is a clear example for those who've long denied that rape culture does exist and is only the fever dream fantasy of the most extreme feminists that they are plainly wrong. Addressing this by putting pressure on our local authorities is one very specific, solid way to say that we do not want to continue seeing rape culture perpetuated, and we very much want to see rapists brought to justice. Arguing against it because we don't want to admit to the existence of rape culture is short sighted, and the kind of emotional political non-calculation that goes beyond a single persons opinion. It puts public safety at risk. Do we not want to give victims every reason to come forward and to be able to prosecute as many assailants as we can? If so, society and specifically law enforcement as an institution, is sending a pretty poor message to victims by having tens of thousands of untested rape kits lying on shelves across the country.

If you're a man reading this, consider for just a second what it would feel like to be a woman and be
living it. What would it say to you about what society really thinks about rape? Would it suggest to you that rape is a crime society believes must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law or would it suggest to you that society doesn't really find it all that necessary to put the effort and resources into prosecuting (to say nothing of preventing) rape?  The how and why of women (who are more than half the population) not being equally represented in law enforcement is a subject that deserves it's own research project, but in this case, the lack of representation has demonstrable consequences for all women. They can't rely on law enforcement to make their case a priority should they be victims of rape and decide to report it.

For anyone who has not spent their lives or significant portions of their lives as a woman, some of this may come as a shock. The idea that the systems of justice and law enforcement may not find the prosecution of rapists or the clearing of those wrongfully accused of rape (the idea that false accusations are somehow more important than or a problem of anywhere near the scale and scope of rape and it's prosecution, also being an aspect of rape culture), to be among their very first priories may seem outrageous. It's not at all unusual to hear press, public figures and everyday people say when referring to crime, and rape specifically, as among the worst possible crimes. This back log is proof that what we say and the way we act are in contrast. That's rape culture at it's most base and fundamental. As a culture we are willing to say that rape is among the worst possible crimes a human being can commit, but we can't muster the collective will to see to it that rape is prosecuted in a timely manner, much less prevented. Given that, is it really very shocking that we also wouldn't be putting very much effort into developing ways to prevent rape that don't put the onus on the victims or potential victims, as activists so often suggest? This is rape culture.

There are ways to make sure that all rape kits get tested. States or the federal government could pass laws requiring kits are tested in a timely fashion. Considering how much police forces have fallen in love with asset forfeiture, they could be required to use those resources to fund the testing of rape kits, instead of some of the many questionable things it ends up being used for. Like so many other things, the question of whether or not we can develop a solution to the problem of untested rape kits is going to come down to a combination of the will of the public and the will of authorities. Public pressure on both elected and appointed authorities can yield results. With an election year coming up, the question of whether or not candidates will make rape prevention and prosecution a priority is something that can be asked, and done so in a way that requires them to put forward a plan. As social media continues to change the political landscape, the opportunity exists to use it as a way to put pressure on authorities in government and law enforcement to put forth solid, executable plans to deal with the backlog of untested rape kits, and insuring it's not something that becomes an interminable problem that's being talked about during every election cycle. Most importantly, it gives victims a chance to put pressure on candidates, elected and appointed officials in a way that can allow them to remain anonymous until they feel they will be taken seriously. Ending this one very small part of rape culture isn't something that has so large and complex a solution that it will take years and generations to see serious progress on. This is something that can be effected within a few months or a year. This is something we can fix, if we give it the level of priority it deserves. Whatever thoughts people may have on rape culture, there is no defensible position to hindering the effort to see every single rapist and sexual abuser is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and that law enforcement is doing everything it can to see to it that differences in regional or jurisdictional policy don't allow serial rapists to slip through the cracks. That is, of course, if we actually believe in the rule of law.

Links for more info:

     Rape Kit Backlog:

End The Backlog - An organization dedicated specifically to ending the backlog of untested rape kits.

USA Today report - Referenced in this article. It also contains a place where you can find out the status of your locality if it has reported the number of untested rape kits in its possession. The search box is in Chapter 3, Cold Hits.

Vocativ report - Details the existence of untested rape kits and the obstacles cities claim are keeping them from being tested.

NPR report - Details the public health and safety issue at hand with untested rape kits.

Slate article - Details the inability of funding and cost to explain the continued existence of the backlog.

Human Rights Watch 2009 report on Los Angeles County untested rape kits

CBS News 2011 investigative report, Rape In America: Justice Denied

Mother Jones article - Detailing $41 million allocated by the federal government to address the backlog.

     Rape Culture:

The Troubling Connection Between Modesty Culture and Rape Culture - Time magazine

Bill Cosby Doesn't Think He's a Rapist. Here's Why That Matters - Mic.com

Rape Culture is Real - Time magazine

False reports of rape are vanishingly rare - so why are women treated as liars by default - Salon

Ten Things to End Rape Culture - The Atlantic


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