A National Epidemic
And it’s not just happening in Harvey. Unprocessed rape kits (a set of tools used by medical professionals to collect physical evidence from a victim’s body after a sexual assault allegation) are epidemic throughout Illinois and across the U.S.
Rape cases are notoriously underreported and difficult to pursue for a variety of reasons. Many in authoritative positions blame a victim’s so-called “provocative” clothing as enticing the rapist. Others discount girls, women and some men who have survived date or spousal rape, or situations deemed “messy” by law enforcement, such as those with drugs involved or if the victim is a prostitute.
Even if a survivor came forward and went to a hospital to have a rape kit performed, it was up to the police detective who received the kit to decide whether it should be submitted as evidence and tested for DNA.
But in 2010, a two-year investigation by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that many Illinois police simply shelved the rape kits, creating a backlog that went unnoticed for decades. Based on 127 of 264 jurisdictions in Illinois, HRW found that of 7,494 rape kits booked into evidence since 1995, only 1,474 could be confirmed as tested. This indicated that 80 percent of rape kits were never examined by the state; without a rape kit, investigations are stopped in their tracks.
In light of that evidence being made public, Illinois took a historic step in 2010: it enacted the Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act “in response to mounting concerns that law enforcement agencies aren’t automatically submitting physical evidence for inclusion in sexual assault investigations,” according to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.
“It’s been a historical problem to have survivors come forward,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan says. “They didn’t feel like their crime was being investigated. This is a way of pursuing justice on their behalf.”
The law, the first of its kind in the U.S. for such strong rape kit reform, requires that every booked rape kit be tracked and sent to an Illinois State Police crime lab. It also set a timeline for processing more than 4,000 untested rape kits from various counties across Illinois.
“Without the law,” Ms. Madigan says, “a person, most likely a child or woman, would have gone to the ER, endured the physiological trauma of being sexually assaulted and having a rape kit, and it wouldn’t have guaranteed that the kit would be analyzed by the lab. This law ensures justice for a horrible crime.”
It’s an idea that’s catching on: in spring of 2012, a bipartisan group, including Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, introduced the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (SAFER) Act “to audit and reduce the backlog of untested rape kits sitting in the possession of law enforcement agencies across the country,” which experts have pegged as high as 400,000.