Thousands of Rapists Are Not Behind Bars Because Cops Focus on Marijuana Users

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June 17, 2014 - By Bill Piper

A piece in the Washington Post highlights the growing backlog of untested rape test kits that are sitting in police storage units while rapists run free and victims suffer.  Missing from the story, however, is one of the biggest contributors to this backlog, the enormous amount of police and tax resources spent targeting drug crimes, particularly marijuana possession.

The backlog is a disgrace. The total number of rape test kits that have never been sent to laboratories for testing exceeds 100,000. In some cases, the kits have been sitting in storage for decades. From the Washington Post:

“In 2009, authorities found more than 11,000 unprocessed kits at the Detroit crime lab after it was closed for improperly handling weapons evidence. After testing the first 2,000 kits, authorities identified 127 serial rapists and made 473 matches overall to known convicts or arrestees, or to unknown people whose genetic material was found at crime scenes.”

The real question is why does this backlog exist at all? Cities and states claim they don’t have the money or other resources, but they sure do have plenty of time and money to arrest people for drugs.

About 1.5 million Americans are arrested for drugs annually - about 660,000 for nothing more than possession of marijuana for personal use. It takes up to three hours to process someone after an arrest. And since most arrests involve multiple officers in multiple police cars it’s potentially dozens of lost police hours just to arrest one person for marijuana.

It costs an estimated $10,000 to arrest, process, and convict someone for marijuana possession. Then there’s the cost of keeping thousands of drug task forces operational, most of which do nothing but bust people for marijuana or other low-level drug offenses. New York City claims to not have enough money to test all its rape test kits but spends millions each year randomly searching young people of color for marijuana.

Worse, police have a financial incentive to focus on drugs.  Federal grant programs, such as the Edward J. Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, reward local and state police for the number of people they arrest. Through asset forfeiture laws police agencies are allowed to keep money, cars, houses and other proceeds from the drug trade. Busting nonviolent drug offenders allows them to line their own agency’s coffers. They don’t get anything for arresting rapists or other violent criminals.

When the Drug Policy Alliance did an asset forfeiture reform ballot measure in Utah that directed forfeiture proceeds to the state’s general treasury instead of police budgets, police said that if the measure passed they would have no reason to go after drug offenders. The initiative passed and drug arrests and seizures decreased. Police eventually convinced the legislature to gut the initiative and let them return to profiting from drug cases.

At least one national policymaker gets the connection between the war on drugs and the increasing backlog in rape kit testing: Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN). He recently offered an amendment on the U.S. House floor shifting $5 million from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to a rape test kit testing program. It passed overwhelmingly.

Polling shows that voters support legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana because they want to stop wasting police resources. They want police to focus on real crime, like rape, instead of ruining people’s lives with an arrest record for marijuana possession. Unfortunately there are still politicians and police officers supporting the failed war on drugs. It’s time we start calling them out.

Every dollar and police hour spent on nonviolent drug offenders is money and time not spent on real crime.

Bill Piper is the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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