Editorial: Clearing rape kit backlog an overdue triumph for Virginia

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot

With the testing of the last of the rape kits that had been languishing in storage, Virginia has reached the end of a sad chapter in the treatment of victims of sexual assault. It’s a chapter that never should be repeated.

That all the 2,665 rape kits sitting on shelves for years have finally been tested is an important milestone for the commonwealth and its efforts to treat sexual assault victims with justice, dignity and respect. Clearing the backlog is a victory of sorts for Attorney General Mark Herring, who announced the accomplishment at a news conference in Richmond.

As attorney general, Herring has made better treatment for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence a priority, and he rightly realized that processing rape kits promptly and efficiently is an important part of that effort.

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While eliminating the backlog is clearly good news, the fact remains that things never should have been in that state. The backlog was the result of a breakdown in the way the state handles the investigation when someone reports a sexual assault and goes through the uncomfortable process of having physical evidence collected at a hospital. It’s a breakdown that worsened over time, probably more through neglect than anything else.

For far too long, many sexual assault victims have decided that reporting the crime against them was not worth the effort. Sure, most victims would love to see the person who attacked them brought to justice. But victims also have to deal with the reality that in our society, there’s still often a stigma attached to being a rape victim.

When a victim has the courage to report the crime and submits to the indignities of giving physical evidence, that person is hoping for results. If the rape kit merely disappears and the victim hears nothing as the years go by, the victim understandably may feel that no one cares what happened. A victim who reported a crime hoping that seeing justice done would help her recovery and perhaps prevent a future attack may well feel doubly victimized.

Unfortunately, that scenario played out too often in Virginia until recent years. When Herring took office in 2014, there were thousands of untested rape kits in storage. Some had been there for decades.

The General Assembly ordered police departments to turn over kits collected before July 1, 2014. Grants from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and the Department of Justice helped pay for the project to test the neglected rape kits.

As a result of the belated testing, 851 new DNA profiles have been added to a national database, 354 hits have been sent to law enforcement agencies for investigation, and at least one man has been charged. From the 700 untested kits from Hampton Roads — including 400 from Virginia Beach — 270 DNA profiles are now in the database and more than 100 hits have been reported.

Herring promised that such a backlog won’t build up again. Some recent changes in the way things have done should help Virginia make good on that promise.

A 2016 state law mandates immediate testing of kits.

The Department of Forensic Science has developed a new system that makes it easier for victims or survivors, hospitals and law-enforcement agencies to track rape kits through every step of their way through the system — collection, transportation, lab analysis and storage. The new system gives teeth to the law that says sexual assault victims in Virginia have the right to know the status of evidence collected from them.

The backlog of untested rape kits is a blot on Virginia’s justice system. Herring and all those involved in the project to test those long-shelved kits deserve praise.

The new measures should make it more likely that in the future, victims of sexual assault will be treated with dignity. They should increase the chances that sexual assailants will be brought to justice. Officials and victims’ advocates should remain vigilant to make sure that happens.

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