Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Justice for rape victims

After 9 months of public and private pressure towards the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s Department, these departments finally counted their untested rape kits. In the recent article from the San Francisco Chronicle, it is brought to our attention that many rape kits are not being tested. Not only are these rape kits not being tested but these rape kits are not even being accounted for. Los Angeles is a prime example, 12,500 sets of rape kits were found to be untested and unaccounted for reported by the Human Rights Watch.

As an advocate, I encourage survivors of sexual assault to seek medical attention and strongly encourage them to allow a rape kit exam to be performed so that biological and physical evidence can be collected, which is often necessary to support their case. A rape victim has the right to choose whether or not to report the crime committed against them and as an advocate I support their decision either way. As an activist I personally feel reporting the crime is important. Whether I’m playing the role of activist or advocate, to find out there is a possibility the rape kits that we strongly encourage the survivor to take part in are not even being tested blows my mind.

What does this say to the victim?

Who chooses what rape kits should be tested?

Every victim has the right to seek justice.

The article concluded with the emphasis of having a statewide reporting of untested rape kits being mandated. Although this does not insure the testing of every rape kit, it is a first step to having all rape kits accounted for.

This step should have already been mandatory furthermore; our next step needs to be the assurance that rape kits are being tested. Having these untested rape kits tested allows for identification of the perpetrator and ensures public safety from future assaults by the same perpetrator.

Be Aware. Take Action.
Sabrina Sadler, Social Outreach Intern

Justice for rape victims: Don't ignore evidence
Sarah Tofte
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Imagine for the moment the unthinkable: You are a rape victim. In the aftermath of such a traumatic event, the police will ask to collect DNA evidence from your body, an invasive process that can take four to six hours. Police will take this evidence, known as a rape kit, and you might assume it would be tested for a DNA match that could lead to a prosecution and conviction and keep your rapist from striking again.

Yet, all too often, rape kits are never sent to crime labs. Across the nation, there are thousands and thousands of untested kits in police storage facilities. A March 2009 report by Human Rights Watch found that in the Los Angeles area alone, there were more than 12,500 sets of untested rape kits. Our research reveals that backlogs are not unique to Los Angeles - they exist in any major jurisdiction that does not have a policy of testing every kit booked into police evidence. That includes the Bay Area.

Untested rape kits represent lost justice for rape victims. DNA testing has grown increasingly important in rape investigations. Testing a kit can lead to identification of an assailant, confirm a suspect's contact with a victim, corroborate the victim's account of the assault, link apparently unrelated crimes and exonerate innocent defendants. Nationwide studies have shown that cases in which a rape kit was collected, tested and contained DNA evidence are more likely to move forward in the criminal justice system.

Finding a match can prevent a rapist from raping again. In one horrific recent case, authorities failed to send for testing the rape kit from a very young victim, and the suspect later raped another girl.

Human Rights Watch's research on the backlog in Los Angeles revealed that law enforcement agencies do not routinely send every booked rape kit for testing, nor do they keep track of how many kits are sitting untested. When the police and sheriff saw the numbers for Los Angeles, they were shocked.

When Human Rights Watch began its research, it heard powerful stories from rape victims who also had shared their stories with city and county lawmakers.

Without hard numbers, however, it was difficult to generate the political will to fix the problem. The organization's biggest task was to get the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Sheriff's Department to reveal the number of untested kits in storage.

Public record requests were of little help. Under California law, public entities must only report findings from rape kits they have counted. But if they haven't counted them, the information officially didn't exist. It took nearly nine months of public and private pressure to get the Police and Sheriff's Departments in Los Angeles to count their untested rape kits. It was not until the numbers were publicized that law enforcement was compelled to change its policies.

Human Rights Watch is not aware of any jurisdiction in California - including the Bay Area - that has made a commitment to count its backlog and then test every rape kit. A bill before the state Senate would require police and sheriff's departments to count the untested kits and report that number to the state Department of Justice.

A statewide reporting mandate is a necessary first step toward justice for rape victims in California. The Legislature can signal to rape victims that their rape kits - and public safety - matter enough to require law enforcement agencies to count them.

Sarah Tofte is a researcher with the U.S. Division of Human Rights Watch.

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