Failure to Test Rape Kits is a National Embarrassment

Ask anyone to name the most serious crimes--rape and murder always top the list. It is impossible to imagine critical evidence in a murder case would not be used to put a murderer behind bars and bring peace and safety to the victim's loved ones and community.

I wish I could say the same is true in rape cases.

Vital evidence from rape cases sits on shelves, ignored. Even worse, it is sometimes thrown away. Federal government experts estimate there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits nationwide. For a country that pioneered DNA testing as a crime-fighting tool, the failure to test rape kits is a national embarrassment. It is devastating to the victims who have consented to the arduous collection process, but also it allows rapists to remain free to rape again. And we know they do.

But we can change the situation, and we have done so in Illinois. Spurred on by a 2010 Human Rights Watch report that found less than 20 percent of all rape kits collected from victims being sent to crime labs, and more than 4,000 untested rape kits sitting on police department shelves across the state, I pushed for change. The new law requires police to submit every rape kit to the Illinois State Police crime lab for testing within 10 days of receiving it from the hospital. Illinois is the first state in the nation to mandate rape kit testing. We know that the law has tremendous power to combat sex offenders and reduce sexual assaults. New York City enacted a similar policy in 2001 and saw its arrest rate in rape cases rise from 40 to 70 percent by 2007.

Illinois serves as a model for other states to show how they can improve this indefensible situation. We hope our legislative success will provide energy to the effort underway to assure sexual assault victims nationwide that they do matter and that their evidence will be processed in a timely manner to solve crimes, bringing them some peace of mind while also protecting others.

Illinois' progress on DNA rape kit testing is a good start, but the effort must not end until mandatory testing of rape kits is a national reality. We believe education is a key to this effort.

Tonight, September 29, millions of Americans will hear that message as they tune into Law and Order - Special Victims Unit. Mariska Hargitay is not only a star on this show, but also the founder of Joyful Heart Foundation. The Foundation grew out of the often heartbreaking real-life responses to Hargitay's television drama, which depicts the epidemic of sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence. Tonight's episode will educate America on the painstaking process rape victims endure to provide DNA evidence of the crime against them.

Rape kit testing is not just about finding a perpetrator's DNA. These kits represent human beings who have suffered greatly. Testing their rape kits sends victims the fundamental and vital message that they and their cases matter.

Sexual assault is a crime committed primarily against children and women. In fact, we know in Illinois more than 80 percent of the approximately 24,500 registered sex offenders have committed a crime against a child. Every two minutes someone in America is sexually assaulted. These are horrific crimes. As community members, we seek justice and compassion in response. Yet we also are faced with a system that lacks the necessary reforms, resources and training and therefore puts very few rapists behind bars. National FBI crime statistics show, for all the rapes reported to the police, only 24 percent result in an arrest. Rape has the lowest reporting, arrest and prosecution rates of all violent crimes committed nationally.

Any signal we send that rape is not taken seriously is another setback in combating this horrific crime - another reason for a victim not to trust the system, not to fight back.

We have the means to change these statistics. We must find the will to do so. We owe it to the children and women who are revictimized by each rape kit that sits ignored on a shelf untested.

The rape kits that sit untested are not merely swabs of DNA. These kits represent actual criminals, criminals who likely will terrorize again unless they are stopped - 71 percent of sex offenders reoffend.

I hope that our efforts in Illinois in concert with educational efforts such as tonight's episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit will encourage people to push for a national mandate to test DNA rape kits. We owe it both to the victims of these crimes and to those we may save from ever becoming victims.