Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
For most victims of a crime, the indignity suffered is rectified through the criminal justice system. Once the crime has been committed, we expect the perpetrator to be held accountable and for law enforcement to use all the evidence available to bring them to justice.
However, in the case of sexual violence, this often does not hold true. On average, 68 percent of sexual assaults in the last five years were not reported, and even those who do step forward confront an epidemic of indifference in the criminal justice system due to the inadequate prosecution of their attackers. Not only do these victims suffer through a violation of their bodies, but in order to collect evidence to identify their attacker via a “rape kit,” their bodies become a crime scene.
After merely a few hours of being assaulted, these victims bare their bodies for an invasive investigation that can last from four to six hours. They strip naked on a white sheet and then have their bodies poked and prodded by ultraviolet lights, photographs and cotton swabs in order to gather their attacker’s DNA. Survivors, women and men alike, undergo this painful process to provide the criminal justice system with the evidence it needs to prosecute their attackers and to allow for justice.
The problem is, most of these rape kits remain untested.
Institutionalized indifference toward testing rape kits is so widespread that 34 states have not even counted how many untested kits are sitting on their shelves. Evidence that could prevent further attacks and provide a sense of security to survivors collects dust as the perpetrators of these acts of violence roam free, unobstructed from repeating their crime.
To add even more insult to injury, much of the rape kit backlog disproportionately affects those of lower socioeconomic classes, who often are minority groups and reside in areas with fewer resources to prosecute. Those rape victims from minority groups, such as the poor, the homeless and transgendered, suffer from the double-edged sword of increased risk to sexual assault and an overstrained and underfunded system which often does little to help them achieve justice.
The crux of the problem is clear: despite widespread cultural revolutions that have launched a national dialogue on sexual violence, the criminal justice system does not attribute enough significance to these crimes.
In areas where funding is limited and criminal activity runs rampant, an overburdened police force may choose to prioritize other acts of lawlessness over acts of sexual violence. This holds especially true for drug-related offenses, since law enforcement faces pressure from political leaders to crack down on even minor crimes that are related to the largely ineffectual “War on Drugs.” As more and more money and political capital have been expended to toughen our criminal justice system toward drug-related offenses, other cases — such as sexual violence — have fallen by the wayside.
In fact, the limited relative commitment to the prosecution of sexual violence can be seen in the composition of our prisons. According to the Bureau of Prisons, 48.6 percent of inmates are currently incarcerated for drug-related offenses, while a mere 7.1 percent of inmates have been imprisoned for sex-related offenses. Even more infuriating is that only 2 percent of all rapists will ever serve a day in prison. The truly frustrating story behind these numbers is that the majority of inmates imprisoned for drug-related offenses have committed only nonviolent crimes, while the majority of sex-related criminals are guilty of heinous acts of sexual violence.
It has become glaringly evident that the criminal justice system is failing those whom it is entrusted to protect, not only by imprisoning an immense amount of individuals with nonviolent drug offenses, but also by neglecting the victims of violent rape and other sexual crimes. As such, the federal government must push for a sweeping overhaul of this system in order to best defend society from acts of criminality, especially those involving violence.
Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced on Sept. 10 that $41 million in grants would be awarded to test rape kits in 20 jurisdictions across the country. In addition, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance revealed that his office would also be supporting this initiative with $38 million in grants to be awarded to 32 jurisdictions. Together, this substantial sum should allow for the testing of 70,000 rape kits in 43 jurisdictions across 27 states, according to the White House. Vance stated that this funding is “the single largest contribution toward ending the rape kit backlog that has ever been made.” Even more, the U.S. Department of Justice received approval from Congress last fall to fund grants that will test approximately 13,500 rape kits over 20 jurisdictions.
While these contributions are commendable and undeniably a significant push in the right direction, the fact remains that these actions alone are not enough. Despite these efforts, only about a fifth of the estimated 400,000 untested rape kits will be examined. In order to truly tackle this problem, testing of all rape kits must be mandated and funded. Currently, only five states — Colorado, Texas, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois — require that all rape kits must be tested, although several states — such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Virginia — have passed legislation that begins to address the monumental problem of rape kit-backlog.
It is time to address this institutionalized indifference and finally provide justice to those hundreds of thousands of individuals who have waited years and even decades for the government to respond to their plight. Not only would ending the rape kit backlog reduce the number of future cases by imprisoning serial rapists and increasing the disincentive to commit violent acts of sexual crimes, but it would also allow women and men who have been victimized to achieve some form of closure.
Safiyah Bharwani is a College sophomore from Sugar Land, Texas.