Rape

Rape Kit Backlog Testing Gets $41 Million Boost From Obama Administration

Rape kit testing is important but the initiative threatens to set up yet another front in federal bureaucracy.

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Abode of Chaos/Flickr

The Obama administration Thursday pledged $41 million in federal funding for states to use to test their backlogs of so-called "rape kits," the medical forensic evidence collected as part of sexual assault examinations. The Manhattan District Attorney's (DA) Office will pitch in nearly as much, giving $38 million to the cause. "When we solve these cases, we get rapists off the streets," said Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement.

In jurisdictions across the country, thousands of rape kits sits untested. Efforts to clear these backlogs have seen promising results, leading to a large number of DNA matches and identification of a number of suspected serial rapists. Detroit has tested nearly 11,000 unprocessed rape kits since 2009, identifying 2,616 total suspects—including 477 suspected serial rapists—and securing 21 convictions. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, "about 30 percent of cases that have developed from testing so far are serial rape suspects," The Seattle Times noted recently. "One of them, Robert Green, assaulted seven women over nearly a decade as evidence went unprocessed. He pleaded guilty last fall and was sentenced to up to 135 years in prison."  

But testing this evidence is expensive, costing some $500-$1,200 per kit. (In some places, assault victims are expected to shoulder the cost of rape-kit testing themselves, though there's been some progress on this front recently). And there are understandable reasons why resource-strapped or tech-skeptical units let some kits go untested, such as cases where the victim didn't want to pursue charges or the attacker confessed. 

"There is no smoking gun that you can point to in any city in America to say this is the one reason why we have this accumulation of kits that have been untested," Doug McGowen, coordinator of the Memphis, Tennessee, Sexual Assault Kit Task Force, told the Times. "It's very hard to quantify the actions of people when the science was new … or when the science wasn't available. We're looking at it through today's lens." 

A National Institute of Justice report released in April found that while technological constraints, understaffed crime labs, high police turnover, and other factors all contributed to the backlog, there was also a clear pattern of "police treating victims in dehumanizing ways." Women reporting rapes were routinely assumed to be sex workers, the study found, and teens assumed to be covering up for behavior that would piss off parents. 

The goal of the new rape-kit testing initiative—a joint project of the Manhattan DA's office and the Bureau of Justice Assistance's (BJA)—is analysis of at least 70,000 untested rape kits. Officials have secured contracts with private forensic labs to conduct testing for around $675 per kit. Grants are going to 32 jurisdictions across 20 states, with individual awards ranging from $97,000 to $2 million.

Biden announced grant recipients Thursdays from the New York City medical examiner's office, joined by Law and Order: Special Victims Unit lead Mariska Hargitay, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.  "There's nothing more consequential than giving a woman back her life," Biden said in explaining its impetus, apparently of the mind that rape victims with unprosecuted assailants are some sort of zombie-Sleeping Beauty hybrids 

Congress approved the funds for the BJA's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) as part of a federal spending bill last fall. The Manhattan funding comes from asset forfeiture funds, derived from settlements with BNP Paribas S.A., HSBC Holdings, and Standard Chartered Bank. 

Biden and the Obama administration have been advocates of "ending the backlog" for a while now, having made stopping sexual violence a centerpiece of their domestic agenda in recent years, particularly where college women are concerned. Promoting anti-assault efforts within the criminal justice system rather than via regulatory fiat is a welcome change from the White House, if nothing else; and rape kit testing does seem promising to prioritize for police departments (and activists) looking to hold sexual predators accountable. 

Of course, the federal government's involvement introduces its own set of concerns. While $41 million is not a lot of money relative to the trillion dollar plus federal budget, the money comes with all sorts of strings attached, including a bevy of reporting requirements and "performance measures" to meet and regular check-ins with the feds. At best, this holds grant recipients accountable. But it also threatens to establish yet another front in federal bureaucracy, with all the grant-grubbing, wasteful administrative costs, disincentives to expediency, and potential for overreach and abuse that might imply.

Federal money has already been flowing to local crime laboratories for clearing rape-kit backlogs, but the new BJA program focuses on kits that haven't yet been submitted for testing. It also "aims to address why (rape kits) continue to remain unsubmitted for testing, and help jurisdictions implement new policies and procedures to prevent this from occurring again," as well as support "the investigative and prosecutorial aspects of sexual assault cases resulting from the testing" and the bolstering of victim's services.

Which brings us to the civil libertarian concerns. The feds don't just want to fund forensic testing, they also aim to support investigations and prosecutions of cases based on these DNA hits, though details of how they'll do so are scant. But anytime federal agents start meddling in local crime cases, it should at least give us pause. This is the same impulse that's brought us SWAT raids on pot dealers and Homeland Security operations against small erotic-massage parlors.

And then there's the DNA issue. When rape kit testing yields DNA evidence, places will check it against the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a national DNA database, where it will then reside as another DNA data point. In Kentucky, for instance, the new grant "will run for two years with 300 kits outsourced monthly and the resulting perpetrator DNA profiles uploaded into CODIS by the State Police Laboratory."

That's a lot of people's DNA being collected, without regard for whether they are even a suspect (i.e., a woman's husband who had sex with her on the same day she was attacked). BJA also wants grant recipients to develop their own "tracking systems" for this DNA evidence. While DNA evidence can be invaluable at catching criminals, it's also incredibly sensitive—and imperfect—information with great potential to be misinterpreted or abused. And federal law enforcement has a history of messing up when it comes to forensic analysis.

State and city legislators have recently been mobilizing to address the issue of rape kit testing in their own ways. As of May, more than 20 states had passed or were considering legislation addressing analysis backlogs. 

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  1. In some places, assault victims are expected to shoulder the cost of rape-kit testing themselves,

    My recollection is that, if the victim decides not to press charges, they have to pay for the testing. Seeing as they have to consent to the testing before its done, this honestly doesn’t seem all that unfair to me.

    1. Some women decide not to press charges or stop cooperating when they encounter the demeanor of the investigating detectives.

      If I go for a rape kit (which happens fairly early in the process, no??) and then the detective starts treating me like I’m a lying whore or I had it coming, i might decide to drop the case rather than endure victim blaming.

    2. Exactly. And I don’t believe this money will actually go to even test rape kits. This new money will probably be wasted to prosecute petty offenders. For example, they will probably use DNA evidence to prosecute petty shoplifters and to swab empty beer bottles to catch teenagers on underage drinking charges. I don’t believe anything Joe Biden tells us. He is full of shit!

  2. particularly where college women are concerned

    *headdesk*

    1. Doncha love it? This is probably the safest cohort of non-elderly women in the country, possibly the world, and we’re having a panic about it.

      1. Yes. See: “Cable TV’s crime shows love white female homicide victims” http://malemattersusa.wordpres…..e-victims/

    2. Well, they are reliable Democrat votes.

      1. That part of the Life of Julia is critical for imprinting.

  3. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, “about 30 percent of cases that have developed from testing so far are serial rape suspects,” The Seattle Times noted recently.

    The other 70% is from Warty, who isn’t a serial rapist.

  4. But what does Ice-T thinks about the rape kit backlog?

    Get Jesse Walker on the case!

    1. Yeah, trotting out an actress who plays a prosecutor on TV just screams “seriousness” to me – certainly not “politically motivated photo op”.

      1. To be fair, Hargitay is founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization established in 2004 to provide support to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.

        So I don’t think its JUST cuz she’s an actor

        1. Why any “celebrity” if you are simply announcing a very minor expenditure? This was politics, not actual work being done.

        2. True. Given how SVU sensationalizes everything, it was probably someone’s idea of a pretty good joke to have Hargitay front for the administration in this case.

  5. and Homeland Security operations against small erotic-massage parlors.

    Is that some slight against the good Asian women who are known to work at such establishments?

    How dare you!

  6. “In jurisdictions across the country, thousands of rape kits sits untested.”

    But there are traffic citations to be written!!!

    1. And teen drivers must be pulled over and congratulated for wearing their seat belts.

    2. It’s not even like the money from all those citations are going to fund rape kit testing.

  7. See, this is one of those cases where I am simply baffled that local police departments can’t be bothered to pay for it themselves. This is THEIR JOB. They’re supposed to investigate reports of crimes, especially violent crimes like rape.

    Sure, in cases where the victim doesn’t want to press charges, or the accuser confesses, fine. But clearly there are many other cases where that isn’t the case, and the cops are just deciding not to bother. As if this was a case of bicycle theft or something where there is little chance of finding the culprit. It’s always offensive when the police are like “Why should I bother investigating the theft of your bike/car/tire, we’re not going to find the suspect? ” But it’s even worse when the issue is rape.

    Do you fucking jobs and investigate actual crimes instead of wasting your time trying to bust people for selling weed.

    1. Do you fucking jobs and investigate actual crimes instead of wasting your time trying to bust people for selling weed.

      How much revenue would that generate, though?

      1. Idea: Asset forfeiture.

        Your Miata was an accessory to rape.

        1. Police can’t seize property they already own…

    2. So, you are saying the NYPD using five plainclothes police officers to take down an innocent tennis player based upon a somewhat similar appearance to an instagram image was not a good use of resources?

      1. At least in that case they were investigating an actual crime. THough the methods were obviously fucked.

        1. The number of people on the street working a single lead for a non-violent crime is absurd, and I believe his incident occurred in Manhattan.

          I also believe there were around the same number, if not more, when Eric Garner was arrested/killed.

          1. I don’t necessarily have an issue with the number of resources being used since it was a purported identity theft ring rather than just a one off person (if i remember correctly) — and while not violet, it is a huge burden to the victim to unwind the problems they create.

            But the amount of aggression and the tactics being used for what is essentially a non-violent criminal is absurd.

            You have five officers to apprehend one in that moment…why tackle (and put yourself, the person doing the tackling at risk as well) or use force at all. If 5 cops pull out their badges and order someone not to move — most non-violent suspects aren’t going start fighting — worst case is they might try and run/flee

            1. I don’t necessarily have an issue with the number of resources being used

              Investigating identify fraud is a perfectly good use of resources. But, do you really five people to arrest a non-violent suspect, and if you do wouldn’t calling for a patrol car be a better use of resources as opposed to having five detectives there?

              The point I was trying to make, piggybacking off Hazel’s comment, is that the borough of Manhattan needs assistance (federal funding, asset forfeiture) to test rape kits, and yet they seem to have no issue finding resources to gang arrest James Blake.

              1. It takes brains to evaluate rape kits. The assets used to arrest Blake were just muscle, which is common.

      2. Hillary Clinton would suggest they use a Snapchat photo instead.

        #wipewater

  8. STEVE SMITH MISUNDERSTAND TERM “RAPE KIT,” RAPE ALL KITS. NOW RAPE KITS ARE CONTAMINATED WITH STEVE SMITH DNA.

    1. STEVE SMITH NOT NEED KIT, CAN RAPE FINE ON OWN!

  9. how does spending an additional 41 million dollars on this actually solve any of these problems, that were created by grossly incompetent people who are already probably overpaid.

  10. Of course, the federal government’s involvement introduces its own set of concerns.

    That’s libertarianism in a nutshell. Getting people to even acknowledge that there are costs to be considered is hard enough but just try to get them to consider that the costs may outweigh the benefits – and that in cases where the costs outweigh the benefits maybe the moral preening to be gained from being seen to be concerned and caring enough to ‘do something’ is too high a price to pay. (“if it saves just one life…” is just such awful horrible bullshit that I refuse to believe any rational person believes it literally, but I do believe that there are plenty enough idiots who seriously think spending billions or tens of billions of dollars to save one life is an acceptable cost. And the people who say stuff like “if it saves just one life…” know full well that they’re making a strictly emotional appeal to idiots.) There are no easy solutions to problems – that’s kinda what defines a problem – there are only trading one set of problems for another and any time you think you see a simple, cheap, easy solution to a problem it’s a pretty damn good bet you’re not seeing the problem correctly, not considering all the angles.

    1. There are no easy solutions to problems – that’s kinda what defines a problem – there are only trading one set of problems for another and any time you think you see a simple, cheap, easy solution to a problem it’s a pretty damn good bet you’re not seeing the problem correctly, not considering all the angles.

      Forgive If I am misunderstanding your point, but the tone of this comment seems to me that you are saying better to do nothing at all than do something complicated.

      The context for this comment is weird. It’s a post about untested rape kits and trying to fix the problem of a backlog of untested rape kits that allows people to get away with violating others. Just because there are concerns (ones that could theoretically be addressed by adding privacy provisions/rules) does that me we just throw our hands up and say “Whaddayagonnado??”

      I agree that many times the “do something” mentality is probably worse than the status quo, but in this case, I dont see it

    2. Speaking of which,

      “Detroit has tested nearly 11,000 unprocessed rape kits since 2009, identifying 2,616 total suspects?including 477 suspected serial rapists?and securing 21 convictions. ”

      At $850 a kit, that’s around $10 million plus significant court and jail costs for 21 convictions, not including crimes prevented or false imprisonments. Worth it?

  11. 3rd Party Doctrine? /ducks, runs out of room

    speaking of DNA, i’ve been playing Linkage, the DNA/RNA card game. it’s fun. not yahtzee! orgasm, but it’s a quick, fun way to pass the time on a plane with another.

      1. /runs back into room to explain

        3rd Party Doctrine that judges use to justify warrants to telecom providers for our comms records. If the data is held by a 3rd party, i.e. Verizon, then we have no expectation of privacy. If your semen is held by a 3rd party, i.e. your mom, then you have no protections to prevent it tested and cataloged.

        /ducks, runs out of room again

  12. Rape kit testing is important but the initiative threatens to set up yet another front in federal bureaucracy.

    Feature.

    1. Joe Biden is our nation’s Rape Czar.

  13. Conspiracy theory time:

    The Feds want to hand out funding to state agencies for certain things so that they can get them addicted to the funding, then exert control over them in the future by threatening to take it away.

    Example 1: States must set the drinking age at 21, or lose highway funding.

    Example 2: Colleges must enforce Title IX bullshit, or lose DOE funding.

    It’s even better (for THEM) if the Feds make the funding for something that most voters can’t possibly oppose. Just think about the attack ads if any politician opposed this… “He voted against funding to solve rapes! He wants to let rapists go free!”

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