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How addressing untested rape kits can impact survivors, the community & the criminal justice system

Untested rape kits reveal systematic issues within the criminal justice system
Stock Adobe
Untested rape kits reveal systematic issues within the criminal justice system

In 2017, Wisconsin had over 6,000 untested rape kits. In 2022, a state-wide tracking database was launched for survivors to track the status of their kits, but it’s a small step in addressing this nation-wide issue.

Dr. Rachel Lovell is an assistant professor of Criminology and the director of the Criminology Research Center at Cleveland State University. She is a leading expert on the issue of untested rape kits and what the real-life consequences are for survivors and our communities when backlogs occur.

Dr. Rachel Lovell
Cleveland State University
Dr. Rachel Lovell

Lovell will be one of the two keynote speakers for this year’s EmPower Luncheon hosted by The Women’s Center of Waukesha this Wednesday, April 26, 2023.

Lovell explains that one of the main reasons why rape kits were untested is because most of them used to be collected before DNA was available. Then, after the DNA evidence became widely known, the kits were too expensive to test. So, kits were only tested in specific cases where the offender was a stranger to the victim, and the victim pursued prosecution. Lovell believes the lack of kit testing is a byproduct of a larger, systemic problem.

"The fact that a kit wasn't tested is really a symptom of a much larger issue which said that we weren't really addressing sexual assault in the criminal justice system in the way that we should be," she says. "One of the largest takeaways that we can see from this is what happens in the absence of advocacy or having someone advocate specifically for victims as part of this process and letting victims have a voice and helping them through the process. The process can be very traumatizing itself."

Lovell's research on untested rape kits also challenges our assumptions about rape, victims, and offenders when the backlogged kits are addressed.

"When they are addressed, there can be opportunities for drastic transformation in the process ... A lot of my research has to do with things that we're learning about sexual offenders, which is that they are so much more prolific than the data would have ever suggested that we had," she notes.

"These kits are providing evidence when a victim reports and the DNA in those kits are then linking those sexual assaults across time and space ... If we don't address this better in the system, having advocates help with that process, then all of us continue to suffer the harms from that and living in a community with increased risk of these sexual assaults," Lovell adds.

While laws surrounding these issues can be helpful in helping victims feel more empowered and enabled to be active in their cases when they feel supported, more action is needed. Lovell notes that greater transparency and accountability can support victims and change a criminal justice system that isn't designed for victims in the first place. "So, it takes a village to do this, but transparency and accountability have to be built into the system or the system won't change," she says.

If you or anyone you know needs support from the Women's Center, their 24-hour hotline number is 262-542-3828.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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