Number of reported rapes in US drops to lowest level in two decades
Widespread use of DNA evidence by law enforcment is helping to secure more convictions
The number of reported rapes in the US has dropped to its lowest level in two decades as the increasing use of DNA has helped identify attackers and encouraged prosecutors to pursue more convictions.
FBI statistics show that rapes notified to the police dropped by one-third to 29 for every 100,000 people last year, down from 43 in 1992 when DNA testing was only just beginning to be widely used in law enforcement. A total of 89,000 rapes were reported in 2008.
Victims’ rights groups say that the use of DNA has been an important, but not the only, factor by helping secure more convictions and keeping some rapists from repeating their crimes. In doing so, it has also given some women and district attorneys greater confidence to go to court.
“The fact that the DNA evidence can secure a conviction has changed the situation,” said Kim Gandy, a former prosecutor and past president of the National Organisation for Women. “When I was a prosecutor it was very difficult to get a conviction. There was a real reluctance to accept rape cases. District attorneys face election every year and they don’t want it to bring down their overall conviction rate because it makes them politically vulnerable.”
Gandy says evolving social attitudes have also helped with juries less inclined to believe defence claims that victims brought assaults on themselves “although it hasn’t entirely gone away”. Governments also began to take the crime more seriously.
As DNA started to become a significant factor in investigating sexual violence, the 1994 Violence Against Women Act came in to force with a $1.6bn (£994m) injection to improve investigations, promote prosecutions and introduce rape kits to hospitals to collect evidence. Some researchers believe that the use of DNA evidence also discourages some potential rapists. Others have taken to using condoms.
But Lauren Sogor of the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre said that the growing emphasis on DNA sometimes makes it harder to secure convictions where it is not available.
“There’s a lot of controversy around DNA. In some cases it does help but it can complicate cases because people expect that there should be DNA evidence and when there isn’t it’s harder to get a prosecution,” she said.
This week, the FBI acknowledged that its failure to enter a DNA sample in its database from a federal prisoner meant that he was able to rape and assault several women in Florida after his release. Local police say they collected DNA samples from attacks earlier this year but they did not turn up any match in the FBI database. It was only after Delmer Smith was arrested in a bar brawl that he was identified as the attacker.
The FBI said it is grappling with a backlog of samples taken from convicts in federal prison. It holds DNA records on only about 80,000 individuals but it plans to expand that by more than 1 million convicts a year from 2012.
DNA has also identified a significant number of wrongful convictions for rape.
Sogor also noted that the total number of rapes is many times those reported. She said that US justice department statistics estimate that in 2005 only 38% of rapes were reported.