As reports of untested rape kits across the U.S. just keep on rolling in, Illinois has passed a law mandating that every rape kit be tested.
Facing criticism that physical evidence from sexual assault cases in Illinois often went unanalyzed, Gov. Patrick J. Quinn this week signed a law requiring the police to test all rape kits. State officials and victims’ advocates said it is the first such law in the nation.
Over the past year, critics had exposed a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits in Illinois, and officials said the law would send an important message.
“As a direct result of this law, we will increase the number of arrests and prosecutions of sex offenders and get them out of our communities and into prison,” said Lisa Madigan, the state’s attorney general.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch released a report showing that since 1995, only about 20 percent of rape kits, which contain physical evidence obtained from victims, could be confirmed as having been tested in Illinois. More than 4,000 kits had gone untested, the report found.
Under the Illinois law, local authorities must submit evidence collected from a sexual assault criminal investigation to the state crime laboratory within 10 business days. The evidence must be tested within six months “if sufficient staffing and resources are available,” according to the law.
As the article goes on to note, that’s quite the mighty loophole. It’s going to require that advocates stay on top of the issue and force the government to make sure that resources are indeed available. The Chicago Tribune provides more details on the funding situation.
But with the admittedly optimistic hope that things might go according to plan, the passage of this law is an important moment. It takes some degree of responsibility for the rape kit backlog, and acknowledges it as a legitimate problem. It also sets a new minimum standard regarding response for other states dealing with the exact same issue. It’s sad that this is the first law of its kind, when it requires nothing more than basic responsibility to crime victims. But it’s positive that type of law that was well overdue for its first finally has one.
Of course, there are good reasons to ensure that rape kits don’t come to be seen as the be all and end all of sexual violence investigations. Rape kits are primarily useful in cases where the perpetrator is unknown, or a particular suspect denies any sexual contact with the accuser. In cases where a victim knows hir rapist and the accused claims that all sexual contact was consensual — a majority of cases — the rape kit doesn’t do a whole lot. Unless there are major physical injuries, which there usually aren’t, a rape kit can’t really tell anyone whether the contact was consensual or non-consensual.
But I say that anyone who subjects themselves to what is usually the indignity and invasion of a rape kit examination damn well deserves to have hir law enforcement agency take that effort and sacrifice seriously. Sexual assault victims don’t go for rape kit examinations because they think it will be fun — they usually go because they want justice, and want and expect to be taken seriously by investigators. They go because they rightly think that the violation of their bodies matter. And everyone else needs to start acting like those violations matter, too.
Further, while rape kits are frequently not integral to the rape case for which they were taken — again, where the accused admits sexual contact — with only about 20% of rape kits being tested, it seems that we sure as hell can’t trust police to pick and choose which kits are processed. Additionally, such kits can help to link known suspects to other crimes where a suspect’s DNA is unidentified. The failure to test rape kits is one way that a lot of serial rapists go undetected for years. And while the number of such cases may be low compared to the overall number of rape kits that are tested, I’d say that in a climate where rape accusers are so rarely taken seriously by police, overkill is both a nice change of pace and a potential show of good faith to do right by sexual assault survivors in the future.
If the law is implemented properly, I think Illinois will see an increase in identifying unknown perpetrators, and linking perpetrators whose identities are known to other sex crimes where there was no DNA match. And that is a good thing, an important thing, even though it’s not the only thing.
Rape myths will persist. Rape apologism will continue largely unchecked. Undoubtedly, police will still fail to follow up on cases even when all rape kits are tested. And even serial rapists will walk free. But if the law is actually enforced, victims won’t be traumatized by what they frequently refer to as “the second rape,” only to find out that they went through the process just to have their kit sit untested on a dusty shelf years later. That alone, in my view, may not be enough, but is well worth the passage of this law and every single dollar spent to put it into effect.