The recent discussion about reproductive health at Georgetown echoes a broader issue that has been bubbling on the edge of public awareness for the past several years. Washington, D.C., is one of many cities across the nation that has seen a significant build-up of untested rape kits. There have been some efforts made at federal legislation to address the problem, but they have failed to take effect. In the absence of a national solution, the impetus falls to the D.C. government to combat the trend.
Rape kits, which contain the forensic DNA evidence collected at the start of rape investigations, can be used to confirm a victim’s story, catch a perpetrator or exonerate an innocent defendant. DNA evidence languishing in storage while perpetrators may be free to commit further crime is unacceptable.
In a dramatic exposé late last year, CBS Evening News revealed that it had tracked more than 20,000 rape kits across the country that had not been tested after being collected, a number confirmed by the National Institute of Justice. D.C. has unsolved rapes dating as far back as the 1960s. Authorities in different cities offer several explanations for the chronic backlogs, such as a lack of funding or a prosecutor’s belief that some cases are unwinnable even with DNA evidence.
New York City, however, has set itself apart by requiring the chief medical examiner to test every kit that accompanies a report submitted to the police. As a result, New York City has cultivated a 70 percent success rate in solving rape cases, about three times as high as the national average. The example it has set should be seriously considered if and when D.C. reevaluates its rape investigation policies.
In November of last year, companion bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate that would encourage and provide support for mandatory rape kit testing practices. Yet the bipartisan Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009 is still languishing in Congress.
D.C. needs to act where the federal government failed. A new forensic crime lab, funded in large part by the federal government and slated for a 2011 opening, will provide the Metropolitan Police Department with an increased capacity to test rape kits. The D.C. government ought to capitalize on the opportunity and establish a precedent of testing every rape kit, increasing the chances that every victim of rape will see justice.
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