Not everyone can be as fierce and effective as the fictional detective Olivia Benson from Law & Order: SVU. But Benson’s real-life alter ego, actress Mariska Hargitay, is similarly committed to solving sex crimes. In 2004, inspired by fan letters from rape survivors, she established the Joyful Heart Foundation, an activist group that seeks to quench violence against women. They’ve raised more than $14 million, and now Hargitay will continue her advocacy by producing a documentary, Shelved, about the more than 400,000 rape kits gathering dust throughout the United States—casualties of underfunded police departments and a culture that still struggles to take sexual assault seriously.
In Washington, the needle seems to be shifting ever so slightly. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden announced a White House proposal to pour $35 million into testing backlogged rape kits and bringing sex offenders to justice. That’s good news—the unprocessed evidence constitutes a disgraceful failure of law enforcement. Anti-rape activists are quick to point out that, although one-third of women experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, only 3 in 100 rapists will ever spend a single day in jail. And as Tara Culp-Ressler of ThinkProgress observes, it’s a question not only of low reporting rates, but also of the slipperiness of defining and prosecuting sexual violations: “Of the rapes that are reported to the police,” she writes, “only about one out of four leads to an arrest—and of those arrests, only about one out of four leads to a conviction.” (And that's not because many of the reports are false: As my colleague Amanda Marcotte has noted in the past, false rape accusations are rare.)
These elusive convictions matter not just because they bring victims closure, but because, unlike some other types of perps, rapists tend to strike again and again. Processing the kits makes a huge difference, as Nora Caplan-Bricker of the New Republic notes:
After New York City processed its 17,000-kit backlog in 2001, the arrest rate for rape cases jumped from 40 percent to 70 percent, reports Erin Delmore at MSNBC. In Ohio, going through 4,000 kits led to 58 cases, and in Detroit, where an 11,000-kit backlog remains, analyzing the first 10 percent of kits led law enforcement to 46 serial rapists.
At a press conference on Monday, Hargitay pointed to yet another reason to prioritize the sets: “One would assume that if someone endures a four- to six-hour invasive examination, that that evidence would be handled with care.”
But reader, I doubt you need much convincing that processing rape kits represents a worthwhile use of police time and resources. The real question is: Why the foot-dragging? How did we get to a place where hundreds of thousands of sex-crime puzzle pieces are shut up in storage lockers and forgotten?
There’s the easy answer and the hard one. Easy is that rape kits cost a lot to analyze—anywhere between $500 and $1,500 each. But on closer investigation, this excuse, floated by police departments, reveals its big flaw: Interpreting evidence in general is a wildly expensive process; digital forensic analysis—of a single computer—might set a department back $5,000, while the average cost of processing any case with DNA evidence is $1,397. Despite this, I'm guessing murders and other instances of nonsexual violence don’t get shoved down into the collective subconscious quite the way rapes do.
A bleaker and more compelling explanation is that, for a long time, our culture has refused to call sex crimes what they are: crimes. When a sense of blame or responsibility clings to the victim, it’s easier for cops to set her case aside. And the blurriness (or perception of same) surrounding a lot of rape allegations doesn’t inspire much optimism among prosecutors that they can score a conviction—so, overworked and underfunded, they don’t even try. I wonder, too, whether hypermasculine values in law enforcement have created a mini bro climate. The Village Voice reported two years ago on NYPD officers who urged street cops to manipulate crime statistics by downgrading reports of sexual assault. One man was able to commit six attempted rapes (“misdemeanors”) before he was apprehended mid-seventh. I like to imagine those cops reporting back to Olivia Benson.
It’s sobering to compare TV’s fantasy sheriffs with the actual detectives who may not regard sex crimes as a big deal. But perceptions of rape and anti-woman violence do seem to be shifting. Caplan-Bricker provides a rundown on the various bills working their way through legislatures across the country: laws in Colorado, Illinois, and Texas requiring police to process their languishing kits, and bills in Tennessee and Maryland requiring new evidence to be analyzed within strict time limits. It's too bad that police departments need laws to force them to process criminal evidence, but until our perceptions around rape change, I'll take it.