Sarah Tofte(WOMENSENEWS)–Two weeks ago, the FBI released annual crime statistics showing that reported rapes were at a 20-year low.

In 2008, 89,000 people reported that they had been raped to the police, compared with a high of 109,062 reported rapes in 1992. Experts on sexual violence attributed the decline in part to the role of DNA evidence in identifying suspects in stranger rape cases. The physical evidence from a rape victim, known as a rape kit, has certainly helped move some cases that might not have been solved in the past through the system. But some hard facts are missing from the good news.

First, while reported rapes have gone down, according to comprehensive academic studies the arrest rate for rape remains anemic at only 30 percent of reported cases, roughly the same as two decades ago. Second, despite the potential benefits of testing these rape kits, tens of thousands of them sit untested in police storage facilities throughout the United States. It turns out the "good news" contained in the FBI’s report isn’t good enough.

Rape victims expect that when they submit to the lengthy, invasive–and sometimes traumatic–process of collecting DNA evidence from their bodies, the information will be used to try to find and prosecute their rapists.

Tested Kits, More Arrests

Testing a rape kit can identify an assailant, confirm a suspect’s contact with a victim, corroborate a victim’s account of the crime, connect apparently unrelated crimes and exonerate innocent suspects. In 2003, when New York City began to test every booked rape kit, the arrest rate for rape skyrocketed, from 40 percent to 70 percent of reported cases.

Thirty years of judicial and legal reforms have improved some aspects of the criminal justice system’s response to rape, but untested rape kits in police storage facilities serve as the proverbial canary-in-the-coal-mine, warning that all is not well. The number of untested rape kits is a concrete indicator of how many rape victims have not received the help they are owed with finding and prosecuting their attackers.

While reported rapes may be at historic lows, these untested rape kits represent rape victims who didn’t see justice done.

A law enforcement decision to test a rape kit is an indication of a commitment to build a strong investigation. National studies have shown that cases in which a rape kit was collected, tested and found to contain DNA evidence are more likely to move forward in the criminal justice system. Conversely, untested rape kits typically represent lost justice for rape victims, as it often means a rape investigation was cut short before the offender could be brought to justice.

Over 10,000 Untested Kits

Recent research from Human Rights Watch, the organization where I work, on the rape kit backlog in Los Angeles County revealed that law enforcement agencies there do not routinely send every booked rape kit for testing, nor do they keep track of how many kits remain untested. We reported last March that the county had nearly 12,500 untested rape kits.

This phenomenon isn’t isolated to Los Angeles County. Recent news reports revealed possibly 10,000 untested rape kits in Detroit police storage facilities and 4,000 untested kits at the Houston Police Department.

No one knows how many untested rape kits are out there. Human Rights Watch knows of no state that requires law enforcement to track and test every booked rape kit and no state or federal agency that collects data on rape kit backlogs.

But from what we know of the backlog in places like Los Angeles and Detroit, it’s clear that for all the talk of historically low rape rates, we are still a long way from bringing justice to every rape victim.

Sarah Tofte is a researcher in the U.S. division of Human Rights Watch.

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