Advancing Justice: MSU Researchers Work to Improve the Criminal Justice Response to Sexual Assault

September 7, 2023 - JJ Thomas

Dr. Karen Holt and Allison Rojek have received funding from the Michigan State Police to work on the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) in Michigan. This national initiative seeks to bring justice to survivors and hold perpetrators accountable. To do so, researchers and investigators work to reduce the 3,440 sexual assault kit backlog, better understand the perpetrators of sexual violence, develop victim and survivor centered responses to sexual violence, and provide training programs for law enforcement investigating sexual assaults.

“There are so many SAKI sites across the country that are doing important work to improve our response to sexual violence,” Holt explained. “I am proud to be a part of this initiative, and MSU has been involved since the beginning. Dr. Rebecca Campbell [University Distinguished Professor in the MSU Department of Psychology] and her team were at the forefront of the Wayne County backlog and instrumental in helping to understand the problem. For me, it is exciting to join the team of amazing researchers who are working to address sexual violence.”

The first step in reducing the investigation backlog is for the team to construct a comprehensive database of sexual assault cases. The database will allow researchers and detectives at MSP to identify cases requiring follow-up efforts.

“Testing kits that have been sitting on shelves for years is just the first step. Next is to follow-up with these results and investigate these cases, which is what SAKI projects funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance help agencies do,” Rojek stated. “It’s important to keep moving forward with these cases to bring survivors justice, knowing that justice may mean something different in each case.”

The cases in this database will be reviewed for matches in the Combined DNA Index System, a database of DNA profiles from convicted offenders. If a match is found, the data will be entered into the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP), a national database law enforcement agencies can utilize to link cases related to serial offenders.

Utilizing DNA evidence, the researchers can develop a better understanding of offender patterns. Traditionally, research related to sexual assault has been limited in nature due to the reliance of self-reports and conviction patterns. By utilizing DNA evidence, researchers will be able to identify cases involving serial offenders and generate unique insights into their crime patterns.

Researchers hope that by shedding light on these aspects, law enforcement agencies can better understand how to apprehend and prevent future crimes.

The final stages of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative will include developing offender-focused investigation trainings. “Offender-focused means that rather than placing the responsibility on the victim to prove what happened, we investigate the offender. I think of it as placing a magnifying glass on the offender to understand who this person is and what they do. And DNA evidence in these cold case sexual assault cases allows for us to look at offender behavior over time, before the SAKI case and after. These individuals are takers, and they take what they want, sexual or otherwise, until they are stopped” said Dr. Holt.