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Thursday, July 22, 2010 12:58 am

New law requires testing all rape kits

On July 6 Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation requiring police departments around the state to submit sexual assault kits to a lab for DNA analysis. In the past, some of these kits were not tested for months, and some were even forgotten.

A study done by Human Rights Watch showed that out of the 7,494 tests from Illinois that were examined in the study, only 1,474 of them made it to a lab to be studied. This means 80 percent of tests, which are used to look for evidence pointing to the arrest of a sexual suspect, never were examined for DNA evidence to solve these sexual assault cases. Illinois currently only makes arrests in 11 percent of its sexual assault crimes, well below the national average of 22 percent. However, this law will be the nation’s first law requiring mandatory testing of sexual assault kits.

Sarah Tofte, a researcher for Human Rights Watch and the author of the report, “I Used to Think the Law Would Protect Me: Illinois’ Failure to Test Rape Kits” is pleased that the state has passed such a law, but worried that an organizational shift may be unable to accompany the reforms.

“I think it’s a huge step forward,” Tofte said. “This is a really big deal for both the state and the country. I think it’s good for the state. The success of the program depends on the resources available.”

Tofte is primarily worried about a clause in the law that specifies that all rape kits will be tested, but only “if sufficient staffing and resources are available.” Human Rights Watch found that Illinois crime labs lack the staff and the money to deal with the influx of rape kits that the law will bring in.

“We would not want to see a situation where the crime lab would not be able to test the samples because of resources,” Tofte said.

One of the main problems holding back the examination of data, according to Tofte, is a lack of organization among the police as well as a lack of interest in perceiving rape as an important crime.

“I think most people would assume that rape would be right up there with murder in terms of priority,” Tofte said. “But as far as the record goes, a person who commits rape is not likely to be arrested.”

When Human Rights Watch conducted the research into different police departments’ files on rape, the organization was given a variety of different kinds of forms. The organization learned that some departments give away victims’ personal information, with the victims in some cases being children.

“It was one more sign law enforcement [officials] are not as caring for rape victims as they should be,” Tofte said.

Regardless of problems, if progress is going to be made with the Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act, Tofte believes more money will need to be committed to law enforcement programs and to crime labs. She said she understands the state’s budget woes, but thinks there is a solution.

“It’s definitely a tough environment to fund a new law,” Tofte said. “If the program isn’t going to depend on state money, they need to depend on federal money.”

Ultimately, the fate of the Sexual Assault Evidence Submission act depends on how funds are allocated, but Tofte has high hopes that the government will see the plight of rape victims as a serious issue.

“We understand the budget is tight, but we think if Illinois wants to help these women, then real progress can be made,” Tofte said.

Contact Jackson Adams at jadams@illinoistimes.com.
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