We all know that the way the criminal system deals with rape is inadequate, to say the least. But Nicholas Kristof’s ‘Is Rape Serious?’ op-ed in The New York Times on April 29 opened my eyes to just how dismal the situation really is–and to the fact that we need to do something about it.
When a woman reports a rape, she usually submits to an extensive examination, an ordeal Kristof describes like this: ‘She is typically asked to undress over a large sheet of white paper to collect hairs or fibers, and then her body is examined with an ultraviolet light, photographed and thoroughly swabbed for the rapist’s DNA. It’s a grueling and invasive process that can last four to six hours and produces a ‘rape kit.”
Shockingly, though, many, many rape kits never see the light of day. A recent Human Rights Watch report found that there were almost 13,000 rape kits languishing in police storage facilities in Los Angeles alone, and more than 450 of those have sat untouched for a decade.
A few years ago, when New York City decided to test its unopened rape kits (16,000 in all), investigators found more leads than they expected and made 2,000 arrests. One kit helped exonerate a man convicted of rape.
So many rape kits are ignored because testing is ‘not deemed a priority,’ according to Kristof. And even when the kits are tested, it often takes a year or more to get the results. ‘So while we have breakthrough DNA technologies to find culprits and exculpate innocent suspects, we aren’t using them properly–and those who work in this field believe the reason is an underlying doubt about the seriousness of some rape cases.’
Jezebel thinks a lack of resources and skilled staff probably contributes to the problem even more than attitudes: ‘It’s also important to talk about and work on the need to encourage more people (and, particularly women) to enter into these technical fields and for local, state and federal agencies to spend money on recruiting, training and keeping employed the very people whose work is so vital to getting these tests performed in a timely fashion,’ they wrote.
Whatever the explanation, what we can ultimately take from all these conversations is that rape victims are largely given short shrift when it comes to investigating their cases. It’s not acceptable–not for any reason.
So how do we fix this? As Courtney Martin wrote in her recent column for The American Prospect, that’s a difficult question to answer. But I like what she has to say: ‘Perhaps this will have to be fought at the municipal and state levels, one embarrassed and vote-seeking local official at a time. It won’t change the limits of our legal system and the profound and exhausting disappointment that we have to fight for even the rights that seem as if they should be guaranteed, but at least more women will get justice.’
So let’s start fighting.
P.S. If you want to know more about why rape kits aren’t being tested as often as they should, PBS has a hard-hitting documentary. It also includes interviews with rape survivors and info on what to do if you’re sexually assaulted.–Jax
Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes, via Flickr.