You may have seen television commercials promoting the “Toward Zero Deaths” strategy formulated by the Federal Highway Administration.
It was conceived on the notion that even one death is unacceptable, and is a data-driven effort to try and change American culture as it relates to highway safety.
Realistically, with 34,000 fatalities annually, the “zero death” semantics don’t constitute a literal goal. Most highway deaths are accidental, caused by driver distractions or inattention or misjudgment (as in drunken driving) or other unintentional and sometimes uncontrollable circumstances.
Consequently, most of the program’s strategic initiatives are geared toward safety measures that prevent accidents.
I hope it succeeds in continuing to reduce driving and roadway deaths, which have plummeted since the 1970s, some years of which some 54,000 people died in auto accidents.
Here in Arkansas, our fatal accident rate has improved markedly since 2008, but in 2012 was still among the worst five states in the nation, which isn’t completely surprising. States with high percentages of rural roads typically have higher accident rates, and 87 percent of Arkansas’ roads are rural.
I wish there were some similar circumstantial explanation for why Arkansas continues to also be a top-five state for forcible rape.
Unlike auto crashes, rape is never an accident. A nervous robber’s gun might accidentally go off—but a violent rapist never unintentionally harms his victim.
I use the masculine pronoun purposely. Forcible rape as categorized and tracked in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report is not statutory rape, but a violent crime, and one that is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women.
It’s a crime with multiple dimensions, including bullying (victims are almost always physically weaker than assailants), barbarism and vulgarity. And unlike the trend of highway fatalities, which have steadily improved since 1979, violent rape crimes have steadily gotten worse. The FBI forcible rape rate reported for Arkansas is 55 percent higher now than in 1979.
Rape is also notoriously under reported. Whatever the error in reporting figures might be, it would only make the situation worse, not better, and it’s already bad enough.
The violation experienced by a woman who is forcibly raped is difficult, if not impossible, for a male to understand.
Any victim of a theft or a burglary knows something of that feeling of “being violated,” of personal items being rifled through and handled irreverently by a stranger, of private property being defiled and debased by a criminal. But such losses are often insured and replaceable. There may be sentimental value to some items stolen, but a looted television is usually replaced by a newer, better one.
The damage a woman suffers in a forcible rape can never be fully restored. It is irrevocable in a way not totally unlike that of murder, and the Arkansas Legislature acknowledged as much in 2009 when it removed the statute of limitations on rape cases where DNA evidence was collected.
Previously in Arkansas, and still in many other states, the statute of limitations started ticking on rape like any other similar-class felony. But delays in processing DNA evidence (the backlog can be decades long, depending on state and municipality) often meant that time might expire before evidence was even processed.
That’s not only injustice, it’s cruelty, and it ought to be unacceptable. Given the irreparable trauma of violent rape—and the reliability of DNA science in establishing guilt—criminal-justice systems ought to expedite the processing of rape kits.
Instead, hundreds of thousands of rape kits await testing in America. It’s hard to know exactly how many, because most states (Arkansas among them) don’t require law enforcement agencies to count or track rape kits.
We don’t need to wait for a federal law to make improvements here on defining and eliminating whatever backlog exists for dormant rape kits.
We should become the fourth state (behind Colorado, Illinois and Texas) to take a proactive position on making rape prosecutions a priority by requiring an enumeration of rape kits and accountability for timely processing.
That’s the surest way to increase arrests and convictions of rapists (as New York City learned after it embarked on an initiative to eliminate its backlog, and nearly doubled its rape arrest rate), and consequently to work our way out of the top five states where rape is most common.
Nothing exonerates a rape suspect faster than DNA, and nothing identifies a serial rapist more conclusively.
Depending on how large the Arkansas backlog is, remedying it could get expensive. DNA testing for a rape kit can cost $1,500. A few thousand kits could quickly run up a tab of several million dollars.
Among all the claimants with worthy uses of our state budget surplus, none is more truly meritorious than using those funds to bring the rapists among us to justice—and to deliver an overdue gesture of apology to our long-suffering rape victims.
Adopting a “Toward Zero Rapes” mindset with dollars behind it wouldn’t eliminate rape, but it would eliminate the wrong message victims often get when rape kits sit untested and forgotten.
The right message should be that even one rape is unacceptable, and while justice is never guaranteed, our best effort at seeking it can be.