It’s nearly impossible to find reliable statistics regarding sexual assaults in the United States. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report places the number at around 98,000 per year. The UCR is a compilation of statistics, provided by State and local law enforcement agencies on a monthly basis, something which they are required to do as part of maintaining their standing for accreditation. I have a tendency not to trust the UCR’s findings for a few very good reasons. Problems with these statistics arise when politics, economics and community public relations become bigger priorities than solving crimes. There are a lot of ways to manipulate these figures and it happens all the time. If there is enough political pressure, burglary becomes criminal trespass, an assault can become a breach of the peace and a rape by a spouse is logged as domestic violence.
Given that, and more, I’d feel more comfortable with a number that is much higher than what the FBI is reporting. Sexual assault is a crime that has been and still is treated very differently than all other crimes. Roughly 80% of the perpetrators are known, in some way, to the victims. The relationship between an attacker and a victim may be as casual as a delivery man or as close as a spouse. It is the latter that makes this crime so problematic – for the victim, for law enforcement and for the entire criminal justice system. It is also what has made it the crime with the lowest arrest and conviction rate – a mere 24% of victims have seen justice done. When a victim identifies her attacker as a friend or a family member or a casual acquaintance, often times her story become suspect. People who report burglaries, robberies or car jacking are almost never scrutinized in the way these victims are. All of that tends to lead many of the women* to come to the conclusion that they won’t be believed, that their crime is not real or that, simply, no one will even care.
Imagine what it must be like to report this assault and to turn to the people who are supposed to help you through your ordeal. The women who do come forward are very special victims. It takes the kind of courage that one rarely sees. They go through hours of physical examinations, where their bodies – now considered crime scenes – are scraped, swabbed and sampled by specially trained medical professionals, all under the watchful eye of a police officer whose job is to collect and preserve the chain of evidence. They are photographed for bruising and marks which their attackers may have left. Their clothing is placed in evidence bags, and if they’re lucky enough to have a friend or family member to call for support, they have fresh clothing to leave the hospital in.
That isn’t the end of it, however. After this indignity is completed, these women now have to give detailed statements about the horrific crime. This isn’t easy for any of the people involved. I know – I’ve been there with them, asking questions that no one should have to ask or answer. But they do it, because they trust you, and the system, to do right by them. You become their partner and their advocate, and you don’t want to let them down. Sometimes, and in some cities, all too often, the process is a devastating failure. Too many of these careful and painstaking efforts have resulted in nothing more than boxes of evidence sitting on shelves for 10 or 20 years – or longer. The only thing they wanted, the only thing that could help them get past all of this trauma might never become a reality. There is no insurance or monetary compensation that will make them whole again – just an arrest, a conviction and the peace of mind that they helped themselves, and maybe someone else.
The backlog of untested rape-kits reached staggering numbers. Cities like Detroit, New York and Los Angeles counted them in the tens of thousands. As the total figure for the United States rose to an estimate of nearly 400,000, and more and more victims were ignored, some very good people and organizations took notice and decided that this just couldn’t continue. Pressure was brought to bear on politicians and police departments, until some actions were finally taken. In 1999, New York City’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir decided to outsource the 17,000 kits held in storage to private laboratories, at no small expense. Other cities followed suit, finding the money for testing, which can range from $800 to $5,000, somewhere in their own public coffers. The effort has been so succesful that a few of these cities have reduced their backlogs to no more than a couple of hundred.
It hasn’t been easy for many communities, particularly in these economic times, to maintain the workload and the expense. There is some fear that the numbers will rise again if the money disappears. Thankfully, the problem is now receiving national attention, and, surprisingly enough, part of the renewed interest has come by way of a television program and one of its’ stars. The NBC series, “Law & Order: SVU” aired an episode a couple of years ago which dealt with this exact problem. A rape victim had waited years for her attacker to be caught, never knowing that her rape kit had never even been unsealed. Her rapist had committed more crimes on other women, something which might have been avoided had anyone taken the time to examine some DNA.
The actress, Mariska Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson, has been a longtime activist for rape victims and has been very vocal in her outrage over the backlogs. Her organization, the “Joyful Heart Foundation” has raised money for and awareness about the problem. She’s also joined with other groups who are equally as concerned, and, together, they have now brought the issue to Washington, D.C. She and others, including many victims of sexual assault, have provided testimony, data and statements to Congress, in the hope that this doesn’t become a problem again.
There is some good news, and hope, to report, following all of their work. In 2010, New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Texas Congressman Ted Poe, presented a bill, in a bipartisan effort, designed to address the backlog issue. The Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (SAFER) Act was written to provide funding for harried and underfunded State labs. It would mean that States could hire and train new employees whose sole purpose is to test these kits and see that rapists are caught and prosecuted. The bill has now been brought before the Senate, introduced by Texas Senator John Cornyn as S.2338, and backed by three Democratic senators. All of those involved believe that this grant money could actually result in an increase in conviction rates to over 70%.
The Department of Justice has been distributing some grant money since 2011, specifically to address this problem. The SAFER Act would ensure that it continues. The bill has been through committee, been debated, over and over, and is now nearing a vote by the entire body. I, for one, think that this is a no-brainer. It wouldn’t take much time for all of us to drop a note to our own Senators, maybe a gentle nudge or two might actually make this happen. It’s not like they’re terribly busy and it is, after all, an election year. Once in a while we voters matter.
*For the sole purpose of writing this post, I have referred to victims as women. I do understand that men are also victims of sexual violence, and nothing I have written was intended to ignore or diminish what they have endured.