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Another Voice: To achieve justice, New York must eliminate its backlog of rape kits

By Natasha Alexenko

Thousands of rapes are reported in New York each year. Sadly, few rapists ever serve jail time. One reason? DNA evidence that could convict rapists remains untested. Today, an untold number of sexual assault forensic evidence kits – “rape kits” – await processing.

New York City is leading the fight against this trend; it’s one of the few places nationwide that require testing of all rape kits. Our state and country need to follow suit by mandating timely accounting of all unsubmitted rape kits and a standard statewide policy for rape kit analysis to ensure all victims have an opportunity for justice.

Last year, more than 2,800 forcible rapes were reported in New York. Sixty percent of rapes are never reported, so the actual number is almost certainly higher.

For many victims, a single act of sexual violence can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and substance abuse. Seeing one’s attacker brought to justice can be essential to coping with the aftermath of rape.

Meanwhile, 46 percent of rapists who are released from prison commit another, often violent, crime.

Even worse, some 97 percent of rapists never serve time for their offense.

Many rapists are allowed to act with impunity due to the failure to process a victim’s rape kit.

Rape victims can undergo a forensic medical examination after their attack. During the exam, a medical professional uses a rape kit to collect DNA the attacker may have left. The kit can then be given to the police, who send it to a laboratory for analysis.

Far too often, these kits go unprocessed. Between 2002 and 2007, 18 percent of unsolved rapes nationwide involved unsubmitted rape kits.

In New York, the tide is turning. In 2003, New York City began processing a backlog of about 17,000 kits. Now the city has eliminated its backlog. Arrest rates for rapes have risen to 70 percent.

The evidence from my rape was in one of these backlogged kits in New York City. I waited more than 10 years, but eventually it was processed. My attacker was brought to justice. But victims elsewhere haven’t been so lucky.

Lawmakers must take action. In 2006, New York legislators eliminated the statute of limitations on first-degree rape, making it possible to prosecute rape cases even if DNA evidence takes years to process.

Now they must require swift and accurate processing of rape kits throughout the state.

Colorado, Illinois and Texas have already passed laws that give law enforcement strict deadlines for sending untested rape kits to laboratories. By doing the same, lawmakers in Albany can make rape kit backlogs a thing of the past.

Natasha Alexenko is on the steering committee of the Rape Kit Action Project and is the founder of Natasha’s Justice Project.