Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An open letter to the Victims' Rights Movement

To all who masquerade through the political sphere as "tough on crime," "law and order," "victims' rights advocates": We are tired of how you ignore the cries of rape victims.

As this article in U.S. News discusses, a large number of rape kits are still unexamined for DNA evidence because of lack of funds. The report states that New York City had, at one time, 16,000 unexamined rape kits sitting on warehouse shelves.  Houston had 4,000 untested kits, Birmingham 2,000, and Phoenix 4,100. Detroit also had 16,000 untested kits, which led to closing the lab there and turning all the evidence over to the already-swamped state facility.

Famously, Rudy Giuliani announced in September of 2000 that New York City would be the first jurisdiction in the country to fund the outsourcing of untested kits. It was part of his wide-spread crime-elimination strategy, whereby he attacked wisely those crimes where a small investment of funds and energy would yield big results. (A chapter of SuperFreakonomics, which I referred to in this blog post, details the phenomenon of "small fixes." Testing rape kits is one of the small fixes: as most rape aggressors are also often aggressors of other violent crimes, such as murder, by examining these kits, more such criminals could be reprimanded. Furthermore, rape aggressors usually commit multiple rapes before they get caught. The U.S. News report writes:
The rape evidence collection kit backlog is a national tragedy. The federal [DNA] databank now has more than eight million DNA profiles, each genetic fingerprint capable of identifying a violent criminal. Every dust-covered kit that sits untested in storage holds the key to solving scores of old cases—these assailants are believed to commit eleven rapes for every one to which they are formally linked. Even more powerful is the fact that by finally matching offenders to the old evidence and taking them to trial, crimes like rape and murder can be prevented.
The National Center for Victims of Crime has a DNA information website, where they offer a quiz about DNA myths and reality, and provide the latest news on the forensic DNA testing. Attorney General Eric Holder said that "DNA evidence is one of the most powerful tools available to the criminal justice system." At the same time, politicians on the left and right side of the aisle voice their concerns for victims' rights. The victims rights movement, however, mostly comprises of three elements: victims' participation in the proceedings; ensuring financial compensation of victims; and efforts to secure more certain and harsher punishment for perpetrators. While the examination of rape kits fits into the third prong, it is almost never mentioned in the political debates over which candidates have a better record of being "tough on crime." Even candidates on the left ignore rape victims when running for office.  For example, listening to an NPR interview with Kamala Harris, this aspect of being a tough prosecutor was notably missing from Ms. Harris' arguments, although comments on NPR's blog indicate that listeners were indeed interested in hearing about where her spending priorities would lie as Attorney General for California. One commenter said:
Steve Cooley has squandered millions of L.A. County dollars by prosecuting death penalty sentences rather than going for life without parole. That money could have been used for more homicide investigators, to run the warehouse of untested DNA rape kits, or other programs that would actually make the public SAFER.
While feminists are routinely accused of viewing women as victims, in the case of rape, the victims are mostly women. If you, Gentle Reader, are a candidate for elected office, please take heed.  Women are listening.


Yazzyjazzy said...

It is really outrageous that these rape kits just sit there without being tested for so long, and that so many rape victims will never attain justice because the statute of limitations will pass before their rape kits are examined. I am with you that I would like to know where the candidates for office are looking to spend their money.

There was a really great Law and Order: SVU episode recently that further investigated the topic of thousands of untested rape kits throughout the country. I highly suggest it! http://www.tv-links.eu/tv-shows/Law-And-Order--SVU_8877/season_12/episode_3/

Dusty said...

Maybe I am just being a cynical feminist, but I think the "small fix" of rape got attention by Rudy G. because as you said, it would bring in "bigger" criminals for less money spent, not because he actually cared to empower the victims of such rapes. While any effort to get the untested kits processed is positive and necessary, it frustrates me that the impetus to enforce the processing is still not for the benefits of the women assaulted, but is just a means to serve a bigger end (catching murderers who can be first brought in on old unprocessed DNA kits). It feels like another extension of the patriarchy to me in that the experience of violated, raped women is not worthy enough to warrant investigative attention UNLESS it serves the "bigger" need of remedying "more" important crimes.

N.P. said...

I tend to agree with Dusty, I think ultimately Giuliani's politics served a different agenda - pursuing crime in New York rather than serving the victim's in New York. While he succeeded, it is important to consider the motivations behind such political acts. If we are hoping to advance the movement to test rape kits, perhaps the motivation should be to actually help the victim's rights movement rather than serving some ulterior motive - even if that motive does help some other public good.