The headlines this week sparked understandable alarm: Across Florida, more than 10,000 rape kits sit untested on shelves and in evidence rooms.
Though the truth — and possible solutions — are more nuanced.
As anyone who's watched an episode of CSI or Law and Order SVU knows, rape kits are used to collect and preserve physical evidence from victims of sexual assault. That evidence — in particular, DNA — can be used to connect or exclude a suspect. For a jury, it can be the deciding factor in a guilty verdict. And evidence from one rape kit can be checked against other crimes.
In a preliminary disclosure this week, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed that more than 10,000 of those rape kits currently sit untested, similar to backlogs across the country. Then there's the 1,500 older rape kits sent in this year since the issue starting getting attention — enough that many are expected to be privately outsourced at about $900 each.
As happens in Florida, there's what we want done and then there's paying for it.
Once the final numbers on how many untested kits exist are in, state officials will likely scramble for a solution. People will demand testing of every last case in the name of justice.
First, some facts: There are logical reasons some kits don't get processed. Take what prosecutors and police call "consent" cases.
It's a fairly common scenario: Two people involved in allegations of rape both say there was indeed sexual contact. But he says she was willing, and she says she wasn't.
Since there is no question about the identity of who had sex in this scenario — only whether the woman consented to it — why would the case be sent to the state lab for DNA testing in order to identify a suspect?
Prosecutors also point to cases in which the victim later recanted or an investigation determined accusations were unfounded. Sometimes a suspect confesses or pleads guilty.
Sometimes, DNA is not relevant to a case.
And it's important to note here that the law already requires people arrested for or convicted of certain offenses including sex crimes to submit a sample to the DNA database — an invaluable investigative tool for comparing DNA in criminal cases far and wide.
But to be clear: If only a fraction of the rape kits sitting untested means justice isn't being done for someone who was sexually assaulted, that's too many. One is too many.
Which makes it important for lawmakers to move forward methodically, logically and responsibly.
Already there's a legislative bill to speed up testing. But every fix needs backup — like having enough crime lab analysts and paying them competitively and being prepared to fund any mandate that says every kit gets tested regardless of its value to a case.
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Instead of a knee-jerk response to alarming headlines, lawmakers should seek the expertise of people who deal with these grim situations daily — police and prosecutors, for starters. There should be deliberate, thoughtful and uniform priorities for what gets tested quickly and without question. The goal should be to clean up that backlog responsibly, in a way that gets us that much closer to justice.