One person in the United States is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, according to RAINN, the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN also found that only 7 out of 1000 cases end in a felony conviction.
Unfortunately, a big reason why a large number of perpetrators remain out of prison can be attributed to an outdated and inefficient technology system tracking what happens to a crucial piece of evidence in the sexual assault investigation process — rape kits.
When rape victims consent to report a crime and go to the hospital, they are entitled to get forensic evidence — as part of these rape kits — to help identify and prosecute their assailant. These kits are then stored with police, who only transfer the kit to DNA testing labs upon request. Unfortunately, due to under-staffing and under-funding of these labs, many kits simply do not get tested, according to End the Backlog, a national advocacy group.
Cut to the Case, a startup launched by two University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) undergrads, wants to help end this part of the larger problem. It is developing a tech platform that allows victims and other stakeholders to monitor the progress of individual cases as soon as the report is made.
“We hope our technology will increase accountability and transparency throughout the sexual assault investigation process, thus bringing justice to more rape victims,” said Kendall Furbee, co-founder of the startup, in an interview with Chicago Inno.
The startup’s rape kit tracking platform hopes to provide valuable data for key stakeholders — law enforcement officials, hospitals, advocacy groups, attorneys, and victims themselves, according to Furbee. The user interface, designed keeping the victim’s confidentiality and privacy in mind, provides a unique code for the victim to log onto the platform, and includes a physical tracking component for the individual rape kit, similar to RFID or bar code tracking. The startup hopes this will provide stakeholders with up-to-date information on individual cases.
The platform also hopes to be an education resource for victims, informing them of their rights and enabling in-platform connections to victim advocates, legal assistance and advocacy groups. The startup is committed to keeping the platform free and accessible for rape victims, and is in the process of figuring out pricing structures for law enforcement agencies to use the platform.
Despite pioneering legislation to require annual audits and testing of rape kits, Illinois currently has a backlog of 3,100 cases of untested kits as of available data from February 2016. This is due to a multitude of factors which mirror the national scenario: high cost of testing (each kit can cost between $1,000 to $1,500 to test), outdated technology, a shortage of staff, and funding shortfalls only somewhat relieved by the end of the statewide budget impasse. Furbee recognizes the resource-constrained environment that law enforcement officials have to operate in: “We hope our technology will only make their existing job easier, leaving them more time to conduct investigations,” she said.
The problem is troublingly prevalent on college campuses — one in seven female respondents of a 2016 survey at UIUC confirmed experiencing sexual assault, fairly indicative of the national trend. Hence, the startup wants to start local and is looking to launch their first pilot this upcoming fall in partnership with Champaign-based law enforcement agencies.
Furbee, a Materials Science & Engineering student, met her co-founder Premika Pandian while they were both part of another UIUC startup, Maker Girl. Before that, Furbee was a part of Cast21, a startup success out of UIUC’s iVenture accelerator, which has also supported Cut to the Case this summer with $10,000 in funding and access to mentorship in a cohort model. Furbee and Pandian are now looking for law and design students on the UIUC campus, as well as statewide advocacy groups working in this space, to help them with the pilot this fall.