Every rape kit booked into evidence in Hawaii should be tested by police

The following op-ed originally appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday, April 10, 2016, co-written with Natasha Alexenko:

In 1993, Natasha was raped and robbed at gunpoint by an unknown assailant in New York City. She went to the hospital, where a medical forensic exam was done but the rape kit containing evidence from the assault sat in the police department's evidence room for nine years.

Natasha's attacker was identified in 2007 when DNA from the rapist was matched to the evidence from her assault. In the years that he was out on the streets after Natasha's rape, Victor Rondon went on a cross-country crime spree.

Natasha is not alone. Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States.

In Hawaii, it is estimated that one in seven -- 67,000 -- women have been raped.

Despite the fact that DNA evidence is an incredibly powerful tool to solve and prevent crimes, there are hundreds of thousands of rape kits around the country that have never been sent to a crime lab for testing.

In March 2016, the Honolulu Police Department estimated that there were 1,500 untested rape kits in their inventory. There is apparently no accurate report of untested rape evidence kits in other counties around the state.

Too often, a decision is made not to test rape kits without regard to the powerfully important role DNA and other evidence collected during the rape exam can play in solving current or "cold" cases as well as preventing future crimes.

Many reasons are given for not testing every rape kit.

Law enforcement often cites a lack of resources and personnel as barriers to processing rape kits.

There are also claims that untested kits do not represent a backlog -- that such cases cannot be pursued because survivors were uncooperative or didn't want to proceed with investigation or charging offenders.

Research has shown that with sexual assaults, more often than in any other crime, law enforcement frequently disbelieves or even blames rape survivors for the assault perpetrated against them, which results in victims withdrawing from the criminal justice process.

Often survivors do not want to move forward with their cases not because they have "recanted" or are "reluctant witnesses," but because of the disrespectful treatment they received through the criminal justice system.

We join experts in calling for the mandatory submission and testing of every rape kit booked into evidence and connected to a reported sexual assault.

We stand with every survivor who has taken the courageous step of reporting the crime to the police and endured an invasive examination to collect evidence left behind by the attacker.

We stand with policymakers and advocates in Hawaii who believe that reform is needed right now.

With the passage of legislation that mandates testing rape kits, currently before the state Legislature, Hawaii would join the growing list of cities and states leading the effort to take action to end the rape kit backlog.

This will solve crimes and take dangerous offenders off Hawaii's streets.

When cities across the country take steps to eliminate their backlog of untested kits, they discover hundreds of violent offenders that have been acting with impunity.

When the city of Detroit discovered 11,341 untested rape kits, the county prosecutor moved to analyze each and every one. So far, they have identified 742 potential serial rapists who have committed crimes in 40 states.

Each of Hawaii's untested rape kits represents a sexual assault survivor who has already waited far too long for justice and an offender who has escaped accountability.

This is not a time for complacency or further delay.

Survivors and communities throughout Hawaii cannot wait any longer for justice and safety.

The time to act is now.

For background and further information on the rape kit backlog, go to: ENDTHEBACKLOG.org.

Kata Issari is the Executive Director, Hawai'i Region, for the Joyful Heart Foundation. Natasha Alexenko is the Founder of Natasha's Justice Project.