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KRISTOF: Outrageous policies need more attention

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."


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