Rape evidence languishes, victims ignored, perps continue

The following editorial appeared in Monday’s Washington Post:

All Natasha S. Alexenko wanted to do after she was raped at gunpoint by an unknown assailant in 1993 was take a shower. But feeling a responsibility to help police solve the crime, she submitted to an exhaustive four-hour physical exam. Never did she imagine that the rape kit — the physical evidence — would sit on a shelf in a police property room for more than nine years. Eventually the rape kit was processed and her attacker imprisoned, but hundreds of thousands of rape kits are thought to be languishing in crime storage facilities across the country.

There’s a backlog because jurisdictions lack the resources or have no interest in processing the kits. That is unacceptable, Ms. Alexenko rightly says.

Not only does it add to the anguish of victims, but it lets perpetrators escape accountability for their actions and perhaps attack again. Congress must give serious attention to a proposal for a new federal initiative to help localities deal with this public safety problem.

President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal would for the first time allocate $35 million in dedicated funding to help local law enforcement agencies reduce the backlog in rape kits. To qualify for grants from the U.S. Justice Department, communities would have to do more than just test the evidence; they would have to create multi-disciplinary teams to investigate and prosecute cases connected to the backlog, re-engaging survivors in the system and addressing the systemic failures that allowed the backlog in the first place.

The proposal, which complements existing funding for DNA testing under the Debbie Smith Act, is based on the powerful experience of police agencies who test all rape kits in their custody and not just — as is the case with many agencies — the ones for cases in which there is a suspect, or charges have been filed, or police believe the victim.

When New York City implemented mandatory rape kit testing, the arrest rate for rape increased from 40 percent to 70 percent. When Detroit tested its first 1,600 kits, it found 87 serial rapists and linked its stored evidence to crimes in 21 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation, which is advocating for solutions to the backlog.

Congress, which must appropriate the funds if the program is to become a reality, is understandably leery of new grant programs, particularly with the pressures on the federal budget. It’s clear, though, that past efforts to deal with these issues have fallen short and a new approach is needed.

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