New Law Promises to Reduce Sexual Assault Backlog, but Funding Remains Major Concern
(Chicago) - The vast majority of DNA evidence collected from rape victims in Illinois cannot be confirmed as tested, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today and based on data collected across the state.
A new law signed by Governor Pat Quinn this week makes Illinois the first state to require law enforcement officials to track and send this evidence to labs for DNA testing and could make Illinois a nationwide model, but the lack of funding for testing remains a source of concern.
The 42-page report, "'I Used to Think the Law Would Protect Me': Illinois's Failure to Test Rape Kits," collected comprehensive testing data from 127 of 264 jurisdictions in Illinois and found that only 1,474 of 7,494 sets of physical evidence, known as "rape kits," booked into evidence since 1995 could be confirmed as tested. That suggests 80 percent of rape kits may never have been examined in the state.
The report found the backlog symptomatic of an overall failure by the Illinois criminal justice system to respond adequately to sexual assault crimes. Several major jurisdictions completely ignored Human Rights Watch's record requests. Illinois's inadequate response to sexual assault is reflected in its 11 percent arrest rate for sexual assault - one of the lowest in the nation and far below the national average of 22 percent.
"Illinois's failure to test DNA evidence is not only an insult to rape victims - it puts all women at risk by leaving rapists who could be identified at large, some of whom may attack again," said Sarah Tofte, US researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "The data suggest that Illinois law enforcement just doesn't see rape as a serious crime that's worthy of time and resources."
National studies have shown that cases in which rape kit evidence was tested were more likely to proceed through the criminal justice system and lead to arrests. Once New York City adopted the Giuliani-era policy to test every booked rape kit, its arrest rate for rape rose from 40 percent to 70 percent. In Los Angeles, a recent decision to test every booked rape kit uncovered DNA evidence from suspects in other rape cases.
Human Rights Watch's report, the second on the rape kit backlog, is based on hundreds of public records data requests in Illinois and more than 300 interviews with rape victims, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and sexual assault treatment providers in the state.
The responses Human Rights Watch did receive from jurisdictions around the state also showed in many cases a chilling failure to protect the privacy of victims. Some jurisdictions erroneously sent Human Rights Watch the addresses, telephone numbers, and social security numbers of victims and suspects in response to our data requests. Several agencies sent the private information of juvenile victims. In an egregious error, test results containing the DNA profiles, names, and addresses of suspects were also mailed to Human Rights Watch.
As one rape victim told Human Rights Watch, "After this experience, I don't feel safe anymore. I used to think that if something happened to me, the law would protect me. I don't think it will anymore. I am a tough girl, but it made me feel like if something happened, the law isn't there for me. It doesn't really work."
The report, the first known investigation of an entire state's rape kit backlog, shows a distinct lack of uniformity across Illinois in how rape kits are processed and tracked, Human Rights Watch said. Insufficient hospital personnel and facilities to help victims of sexual assault, subjective decisions by police and prosecutors about whether to move forward with a case, and testing delays at the state crime laboratory all contribute to the problem, the research found.
The new Illinois law, the 2010 Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act, championed by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, has the potential to remedy the state's rape kit backlog, Human Rights Watch said. The landmark legislation passed the state legislature this spring and was signed by Governor Pat Quinn on July 6, 2010. The law would make Illinois the first state in the nation to require that every rape kit booked into evidence by law enforcement is sent to the crime lab for testing within 10 days of its collection.
However, the law includes a provision that testing of every kit within the time frame specified will only occur "if sufficient staffing and resources are available." Human Rights Watch found that the Illinois state crime labs currently do not have the capacity to handle the influx in rape kit testing that will result from the new law.
"This new law offers Illinois the chance to overcome its dismal record on rape arrests and become a leader in bringing justice to rape victims," Tofte said. "But Illinois needs to provide adequate resources and stringent oversight to ensure that its legal commitment to testing becomes a reality."
Rape kit testing can be used to identify the assailant, confirm a suspect's contact with the victim, corroborate the victim's account of the assault, connect the case to other rape crime scene evidence or separate incidents, and exonerate innocent suspects or defendants.
Police and sheriff's departments have no uniform rules for tracking rape kits booked into their evidence storage facilities. There are no state guidelines for tracking rape kits, recording the status of rape kits, or formatting the chain of reports involved in the tracking process. Until Human Rights Watch requested the rape kit data from these jurisdictions, many had never counted their untested rape kits or set up a system to track the testing of these kits.
"Our investigation in Illinois revealed a patchwork of chaotic and under-resourced law enforcement responses to rape victims," Tofte said. "The disorder in law enforcement was at best inattentive to victims, and in some egregious instances, clearly violated their privacy rights under Illinois law."