Over the course of my 12 years playing detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order: SVU, I have learned a great deal about sexual violence in the United States. I wish our storylines were pure fiction, but all too often, the horrific stories we tell on our show are based on harsh, sobering, troubling realities. This is especially true of our next episode "Behave," airing Wednesday, September 29th. The show deals with an issue I care about deeply - the rape kit backlog.
When a person reports a sexual assault, she - or he - will be asked to undergo a sexual assault evidence collection kit (a "rape kit") exam, a four- to six-hour process to collect DNA evidence from his or her body. Rape kit testing can identify an unknown assailant, confirm a suspect's contact with the victim, corroborate the victim's account of the assault, identify serial rapists by connecting crime scene evidence from separate incidents, and exonerate innocent suspects. Yet experts, including the Department of Justice and members of Congress, have estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits are sitting untested in police and crime labs throughout the country.
We know rape kit testing works. National studies have shown that cases in which rape kit evidence was tested and introduced were more likely to advance through the criminal justice system and lead to arrests. New York City's arrest rate for rape rose from 40% to 70% once it adopted the policy to test every booked rape kit. In Los Angeles, a recent decision to test every booked rape kit resulted in 405 hits in the FBI DNA database.
Yet the benefit of testing rape kits goes beyond providing prosecutors with investigative tools to bring offenders to justice. It goes beyond introducing the clarity of DNA evidence into the arena of rape and sexual assault, the crimes with the lowest reporting, arrest, and prosecution rates in the United States. These kits represent human beings who have suffered greatly. Testing victims' rape kits sends them the fundamental and crucial message that they and their cases matter.
One of the most rewarding aspects of working on SVU is the show's ability to shine a light on the problem of sexual violence. This next episode is one of the most meaningful I have ever done, and it stands as a powerful example of the way we aim to raise awareness about these difficult issues.
In addition to my role on Law and Order: SVU, I am also the founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that works to bring healing, education, and empowerment to survivors and awareness to the public about sexual and family violence. When I first learned about the rape kit backlog, I was shocked that something like this could exist in the United States. Then my foundation and I were moved to action. And we are not alone; law enforcement, public officials, and advocates - and now you - are with us.
Recently, I heard from a rape victim whose kit was tested 13 years after she was raped. Thirteen years. The DNA in her kit matched the profile of a convicted rapist already in prison. Learning the identity of her rapists, and that he was in a place where he could not hurt her, gave this woman a sense of peace for the first time since she was raped. It is for this woman and all the others like her that I am committed to doing my part to end the rape kit backlog. I hope you will join us in this cause. Together, we can end the backlog and bring justice to survivors.
Tune in on Wednesday, September 29th, to our next episode of Law and Order: SVU. Then go to endthebacklog.org to learn more and take action.
I will be watching - and I hope you and your community will be too.