Time to treat rape like a serious crime

Funding cuts, low salaries and high turnover at the Kentucky State Police forensic laboratory helped create a backlog of 3,090 untested rape kits in Kentucky.

Just as alarming is the low priority placed on investigating and prosecuting rape at local and state levels. Biases too often replace evidence-based policing when the alleged crime is sexual assault.

An unblinking investigation by Auditor Adam Edelen, requested this year by the legislature, discovered the need for improvement in the crime lab's funding and management, as well as deeper cultural issues when the crime is rape.

Edelen's office turned up a lack of awareness within law enforcement that comparing DNA evidence from a rape victim's body to a national database can solve crimes and identify serial rapists.

Eleven percent of Kentucky law enforcement personnel who were surveyed said that not having a suspect was a primary reason for not submitting a rape kit to the state lab for testing.

More than half of those surveyed said the main reason for not sending rape kits to the lab for testing was because the victim had decided not to file a complaint or withdrew the accusation.

These answers reveal a lack of understanding and training about how the national database works.

More than half of the untested kits were in police evidence rooms, the rest at the state lab.

The medical process of collecting physical evidence from a rape victim's body takes two to six hours; it's not something one does frivolously; victims have lots of reasons for fearing retaliation if they help with a prosecution.

Sixty percent to 90 percent of rapists are serial rapists. Entering rape kit results into the national database can help convict them, even when there is no suspect or the victim is unwilling to prosecute.

The crime lab further confused law enforcement by sending memos suggesting that rape kits should not be submitted without also supplying DNA from a suspect for testing.

More encouraging, Edelen discovered near-unanimous support among law enforcement for submitting all rape kits for testing.

Kentucky will receive almost $2 million of the $38 million being awarded by the Manhattan, N.Y., district attorney to clear rape kit backlogs around the country.

The legislature must also provide money to cut the eight months it now takes to analyze a rape kit in Kentucky. Edelen suggested a 90-day deadline.

Edelen also called for multidisciplinary teams to investigate rape and for more sexual assault nurse examiners.

State funding for Kentucky State Police has been cut by more than a quarter in recent years. Kentucky has the fewest troopers in a generation. Clearly, cutting KSP leaves Kentuckians less secure.

But so do the attitudes that cause rape to be treated less seriously than other crimes and rape victims to be looked upon with suspicion. Nobody knows how many rapes are never even reported because of these biases.

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