KRISTOF: Outrageous policies need more attention
Published: Monday, October 29, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 29, 2012 at 5:34 p.m.
The silliness began when Todd Akin claimed during his Senate campaign in Missouri that in the case of “legitimate rape,” women “shut that whole thing down” to prevent pregnancy. Then, a few days ago, Richard Mourdock of Indiana seemed to blame God for such pregnancies, saying this was “something God intended to happen.” I think God should sue him for defamation.
But our political system jumps all over verbal stupidity, while giving a pass to stupid policies. If we're offended by insensitive words about rape, for example, shouldn't we be incomparably more upset that rape kits are routinely left untested in the United States? And wouldn't it be nice if Democrats, instead of just firing sound bites, tackled these underlying issues? A bit of background: A rape kit is the evidence, including swabs with DNA, taken at a hospital from a woman's (or man's) body after a rape. Testing that DNA costs $1,200 or more. Partly to save money, those rape kits often sit untested for years on the shelves of police storage rooms, particularly if the victim didn't come outfitted with a halo.
By most accounts, hundreds of thousands of these untested kits are stacked up around the country. In Illinois, 80 percent of rape kits were going untested as of 2010, Human Rights Watch reported at the time — embarrassing the state to begin a push to test all rape kits.
In Michigan, the Wayne County prosecutor, Kym Worthy, said she was shocked to discover more than 11,000 rape kits lying around untested — some dating to the 1980s. Worthy said that her office is now going through the backlog and testing those that are running into statute of limitations deadlines.
So far, of 153 kits tested, 21 match evidence in a criminal database and may involve serial rapists. But Worthy, who herself was raped while she was in law school, says the broader problem is indifference to sex crimes.
“Sexual assault is the stepchild of the law enforcement system,” she said. “When rape victims come into the criminal justice system, they are often treated poorly. They may be talked out of pursuing the case.”
The bottom line, Worthy said, is that “sexual assault is not taken as seriously as other crimes.” That — more than any offensive words — is the real scandal.
Kamala Harris, the attorney general of California, eliminated the rape kit backlog in state crime labs after she took office. “If you don't test it, you've got a victim who is absolutely petrified, and you've got a rapist who thinks he got away with it,” she said. “There could be nothing worse as a continuing threat to public safety.”
The lackadaisical attitude toward much sexual violence is seen in another astonishing fact: Sometimes, women or their health insurance companies must pay to have their rape kits tested.
“No other forensic evidence collection is treated in this way,” said Sarah Tofte of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which has focused attention on the rape kit backlog. If her home is broken into, she notes, the police won't bill her or her homeowner's insurance company “for the cost of dusting for fingerprints.”
Yet another indication of cavalier attitudes: In 31 states, if a rape leads to a baby, the rapist can get visitation rights. That doesn't happen often, but the issue does come up. In Massachusetts, a convicted rapist is suing for access to the child he fathered when he raped a 14-year-old girl.
One way to start turning around this backward approach to sex crimes would be to support the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (Safer) Act, a bipartisan bill in Congress that would help local jurisdictions count and test their rape kits.
According to data from the Department of Justice, one person in the United States is sexually assaulted every couple of minutes. A slight majority of rapes are never reported to the police, and others are never solved. For every 100 rapes, only three lead to any jail time for the rapist, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
There has been plenty of outrage this year, justifiably, at the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and Penn State for averting their eyes from sexual abuse of children. Yet America as a whole typically does the same thing when it comes to the trafficking of teenage girls by pimps, which amounts to rape many times a day. The police often treat those girls as criminals, rather than victims, even as the pimps get away.
These problems are not insoluble, and we are seeing progress. Some prosecutors are going after pimps in a serious way, and according to surveys, sexual assault has fallen by 60 percent over the last couple of decades. Even the furor over the comments by Senate candidates shows that times are changing.
So, sure, let's pounce on politicians who say outrageous things. But even more, let's push to end outrageous policies. Routine testing of rape kits would be a good start.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for the New York Times.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.