More City Council Oversight Needed to Ensure Progress in Testing
May 19, 2009
The thousands of rape victims who went through the ordeal of providing the evidence, and then found out it was sitting in a freezer, will finally have a chance to see justice.
Sarah Tofte, US program researcher at Human Rights Watch

(Los Angeles) - The Los Angeles City Council's approval on May 18 of funds for testing the physical evidence in rape cases is a major step toward reducing a huge backlog of "rape kits," Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch urged the City Council to use its oversight function to ensure the effective use of the new funding.

"The thousands of rape victims who went through the ordeal of providing the evidence, and then found out it was sitting in a freezer, will finally have a chance to see justice," said Sarah Tofte, US researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of Testing Justice: The Rape Kit Backlog in Los Angeles City and County. "The City Council funding should have real and immediate effects."

As part of the city's budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the council approved money for an additional 26 employees for the city's crime lab DNA section and for using private crime laboratories for outsourcing. The budget now goes to the mayor for signature or veto within 10 days of approval by the City Council. The city has a backlog of more than 5,000 "rape kits," as the collected evidence is called, which have not been tested to try to identify a suspect through matching DNA.

Human Rights Watch said that the failure to test rape kits in a timely manner prolongs rape victims' physical and emotional trauma, and may allow some rapists to assault more women.

The new funding, while very positive, only addresses one element of the problem. The City Council's allocations only affect the testing of rape kits under the Los Angeles Police Department's jurisdiction, but will not help reduce the backlog of about 7,000 more rape kits stored by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and independent police departments in the 47 other cities in Los Angeles County.

An increased DNA testing capacity is essential for the Los Angeles Police Department to meet its stated goal of eliminating its rape kit backlog in the next 18 to 24 months, Human Rights Watch said.

The backlog of rape kits in the City of Los Angeles results from several factors. In the past, the decision about whether to submit a case for testing was made at the discretion of the detective handling the case. Testing the kits is also an expensive and time-consuming process, and the police department neither committed adequate funds to the process nor acknowledged the nature and extent of the backlog as the problem grew.

The new funding enables the Los Angeles Police Department to allocate more resources and expedite testing. New York City was able to eliminate its backlog of over 17,000 rape kits through similar means within three years.

"Eliminating rape kit backlogs is not an easy task," said Tofte. "But it is an achievable one."

The funding alone is not a guarantee that the rape kit backlog will be eliminated for good - that will require regularly scheduled oversight hearings from the full City Council to ensure that the Los Angeles Police Department is spending the funds efficiently and effectively.

"While the new money is a critical step toward eliminating the backlog of rape kits, it is certainly not the last step," said Tofte. "We urge the City Council to use its oversight function to ensure that these funds translate into results, and monitor the speedy elimination of this problem."