A key to prosecuting rape

Every year, thousands of individuals take the courageous step of reporting their rape to the police. They overcome the terrible, misplaced social stigma of being the victim of sexual violence. A forensic exam of their bodies typically takes four to six hours. The evidence is then collected in a “Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit” — a rape kit.

Experts estimate hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested throughout the country. Each represents a missed opportunity for justice.

We know rape kit evidence is an invaluable investigative tool. When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant, confirm the presence of a known suspect, affirm a survivor’s account, connect a suspect to other unsolved crimes and exonerate innocent suspects.

What we don’t know is how many untested rape kits are in each state.

In 2004, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had a case backlog of approximately 2,200, and roughly 1,800 of those were rape cases. The GBI started outsourcing the backlogged cases to private laboratories while also trying to build the capacity of the state crime lab for the long term. But this only addresses the challenges of the crime lab — not the hidden backlog of untested rape kits languishing at police departments across the state.

Until law enforcement agencies are required to track and test all rape kits booked into evidence, we will not know the true extent of Georgia’s backlog.

Regardless of what we know about Georgia, we do know that rape kit backlogs in other cities and states directly impact the safety of those in your state.

In 2009, the Wayne County (Detroit) prosecutor demanded access to the storage facility of the city’s recently defunct DNA crime laboratory. What she found was astounding: more than 11,000 untested rape kits. After a National Institute of Justice grant allowed the first 500 kits to be tested, 32 potential serial rapists were identified.

From those first kits, prosecutors have secured two convictions, and have traced assailants to assaults in 11 additional states and the District of Columbia. Georgia is one of those states. That means that had Detroit’s kits been tested after being taken into evidence, an attack might have been prevented in Georgia.

The federal government is making the elimination of the rape kit backlog a priority. After President Barack Obama’s request that Congress allocate dollars to reduce the backlog, both the House of Representatives and Senate have included $117 million for Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Reduction Grants in their fiscal year 2014 spending bills.

This funding can make the difference between getting a violent offender off the street and letting him go free to harm again. Georgia’s congressional delegation has an opportunity to support full funding for rape kit reform as the budget moves through Congress. On behalf of survivors who deserve justice, communities across the country are counting on their support.

We must eliminate this backlog, give survivors the justice they deserve and hold dangerous assailants accountable. The stakes are simply too high.

Sarah Tofte is director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation.