Imagine you are a woman who has just been raped. Imagine, furthermore, that you have had the courage to call the police to report the rape (this happens less often than one would hope). Once the police get involved, they can collect evidence from the survivor in what is called a “rape kit.” The hope is that the perpetrator left DNA somewhere on the victim, which could then be used as evidence in a prosecution. This seems like a great idea, right? Law enforcement and justice officials want good, fresh evidence of crime, and a rape is a crime in which DNA evidence is very likely to appear. So what’s the problem?
Enter the backlog. Hundreds of thousands of rape kits across America sit untested, gathering dust. As these kits age, sexual predators walk free, statutes of limitation run out, and if the case is ever re-opened, women are forced to revisit the traumatic events of their past if they hope to see justice done.
In the city of Detroit alone, over 11,000 rape kits were sitting untested in a storage facility, ignored for years. County prosecutor Kym Worthy was alerted to their presence and she has pledged to reduce this backlog. Her efforts have, as of last year, led to the identification of 21 serial rapists (the updated number as of today is 32 serial rapists) as well as numerous other DNA matches for perpetrators who may have been only one-time offenders. One of these rapists actually raped and murdered five women after the first rape kit containing his DNA was entered into the system. If the kit had been tested right away, those women’s lives could have been spared.
So why is there such a huge backlog? There are a couple of factors. The first is just a matter of practicality. Forensic work is very expensive: it costs over a thousand dollars to test each rape kit, and the work must be done by trained technicians. The second is a bit more horrifying: rape simply isn’t that high of a priority to the police. Most rapes go unreported, and those that are reported are unlikely to result in an arrest or a prosecution. It’s no secret that our society places a pretty low value on the safety of women, especially poor women and women of color. In Detroit, Kym Worthy has made testing these rape kits a priority, but she still faces the daunting hurdle of finding enough money to fulfill that priority. The federal government gave her a million dollar grant to begin the project, but that’s not going to get her team anywhere near the finish line.
Enter Michigan governor Rick Snyder. Snyder isn’t popular in Detroit. He’s a white Republican, while Detroit is predominantly people of color who vote Democrat. That’s one reason why his appointment of an “emergency financial manager” for the city of Detroit was so unpopular (an emergency financial manager who is on board with Snyder’s agenda of privatization as a solution to economic woes and who seems very out of touch with the concerns of the average Detroit citizen). Well, that, and also the disturbing fact that an emergency financial manager has almost dictatorial powers over his assigned city (Detroit isn’t the only Michigan city being emergency managed).
But just today, Snyder proposed to put 4 million dollars of state funds toward testing rape kits. Frankly, I don’t care if this is a cynical political move to improve relations between the state and the city. Whatever the motive, the money is going toward seeing that justice is done, and that is good news not only for the survivors but for all women in Detroit and across the nation. Snyder might have political motives, but he’s giving money into the hands of a woman who has proved herself passionate about doing the right thing by Detroit’s rape survivors.