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An Assault on Justice: Rape Kits Go Unexamined

Vermont (Women’s Feature Service) – When Debbie Smith was raped in 1989 in Virginia, her attacker’s DNA went untested for six years. She fought for justice and quickly became a symbol and an advocate for eliminating backlogs of untested rape kits, which provide physical evidence from sexual assault. The Debbie Smith Act, 2004 federal legislation that mandated funds for the Justice Department to eliminate such backlogs, was named for her.

Now California is at the forefront of a continuing scandal, as Justice Department funds allocated to states to clean up their backlogs are being cut in the face of unacceptably slow responses among local lawmakers. Last year, according to a recent report in the ‘Los Angeles Times’, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was awarded half of its expected US$1 million federal grant money. The funds, provided to help cover the costs of analysing DNA evidence in rape cases and other violent crimes, were cut because the department had been too slow to spend the money in prior years. The news came as city auditors revealed that more than 7,000 rape kits, the largest known backlog in the U.S., still awaited analysis.

The public as well as advocates were outraged at the news. Patti Giggans, Executive Director of Peace Over Violence, a California advocacy group for rape victims, told a local newspaper, “The most important thing for rape survivors is that the evidence that is literally taken off their bodies will be treated as it’s supposed to – to identify, locate and apprehend the rapists.” Tim Rutten, a columnist for the ‘LA Times’, said, “We now know that the Los Angeles Police Department’s crime lab is a virtually perfect engine of injustice.” Gail Abarbanel, Director of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center added, “Every unopened rape kit means there may be a dangerous offender loose on the street. [With every new victim] you have to wonder whether any of them would have been raped if all those kits had been opened.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has been monitoring the issue and raising public awareness, says that throwing money at the problem is not enough. “The rape kit backlog is not simply a crime lab capacity problem,” spokesperson Sarah Tofte says. “The city [Los Angeles] needs a plan to improve the entire process of investigating and prosecuting rape cases. That is what will be meaningful to victims.”

The comprehensive plan advocated by HRW and others includes a commitment to prompt testing of rape kit evidence, a commitment that new lab positions will be used to eliminate the backlog, a process to ensure that test results are turned into investigative leads as well as a process to notify detectives, prosecutors and other relevant law enforcement agents, and a commitment and process for notifying rape victims about the results of their rape kit test. Jurisdictions that have tried to eliminate their backlogs without such a long-term plan have failed to improve their records on rape cases even when funds have been sufficient. New York City, on the other hand, the one jurisdiction that carried out a comprehensive plan, succeeded in clearing its rape-kit backlog, which led to at least 200 rape convictions.

As bad as the problem is in California, particularly Los Angeles (LA), it is not unique. This year, the Justice Department cut backlog funding to crime labs in 17 states for failure to spend their federal grants dating as far back as 2004. These cuts come as the national backlog soars, according to ProPublica, an online investigative journalism site. HRW puts the estimated backlog of rape cases at 400,000. That number includes small jurisdictions as well as large ones like LA. In Erie County, New York, for example, the year-to-year backlog increased from 620 in 2006 to 920 in 2007. In Ventura County, California, the backlog increased from 53 cases to 156 during the same period.

In addition to questions about how crime labs are operating, ProPublica and the ‘LA Times’ have raised questions about how well the Justice Department supervises its backlog reduction programme. Much of the oversight work has been outsourced to a company in Florida, and at least US $55 million of the department’s DNA money is unaccounted for according to government records. In November, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) wrote a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey expressing her “strong concerns” about how the money was being spent. “It would be outrageous if the backlogs are the result of the Department of Justice’s negligent administration,” she said.

Despite the US$474 million that the US Congress gave to the Justice Department in 2004 to help crime labs reduce their backlogs, it remains unclear why so many labs have not used all their grant money to test samples. Progress reports filed with the department early in 2008 revealed that 26 labs hadn’t fully used their 2006 DNA money. One lab in Pennsylvania hadn’t used its entire 2004 grant. Tofte says the fact that so many labs have been allowed to keep unused funds suggests the Justice Department is not adequately supervising the programme. “The federal government is part of the problem,” she says. “There’s no accountability. None.” This despite the fact that the department paid the Florida company US$6 million in 2007 for services that included oversight of the DNA programme.

Meanwhile, in LA the city council has announced that it will hire 16 new DNA analysts and will begin paying private labs for more testing. “The plan calls for the addition of 10 criminalists every six months until the LAPD Crime Lab is fully staffed and an increase in funding for outsourcing,” a recent press release from the mayor’s office said. “These two actions will allow the LAPD to clear the backlog of approximately 7,000 untested rape kits in 30 months and to test DNA evidence from new crimes.” That is good news for victims whose rape kits are approaching the 10-year statute of limitations. Perhaps, says Tofte, it is time “to treat rape as seriously as other violent crimes.”

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