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Meet Sarah Tofte: Death Penalty Researcher Turned Rape Kit Activist

Illustration for article titled Meet Sarah Tofte: Death Penalty Researcher Turned Rape Kit Activist

Sarah Tofte is a researcher with Human Rights Watch, and organization more known for its international policy and anti-death penalty work than its work on women's issues — in fact, its website on women's issues in the U.S. is sparse to be sure. But when we saw Tofte's byline on an Op Ed in the L.A. Times last month about the problem with backlogged rape kits in L.A., we were too busy paying attention to what she'd written to think too much about that.

However, her name rang a bell when another story on backlogged rape kits appeared in the Washington Post today, so we were inspired to do a little more research into her and came up with something that surprised us. Tofte doesn't have a ton of background in victims' rights advocacy or research. She does, however, have a great deal of background in offenders' rights work.


Last year, after receiving a "Distinguished Alumni Award" from her alma mater, she gave a lecture on death penalty abolition to the students — fair enough, as most of her research to that point seemingly focused on the need to abolish the death penalty. After that, her scholarship and public statements shifted toward sex offenses, and she's written in opposition to sex offender registry laws and spoken about what she sees as the difference between perception and reality when it comes to sex offender recidivism (the oft-cited reason for sex offender registry laws).

This is a number that always strikes me, that I think people don't pick up on as much, but to me I find this the most striking number. Is that every year, of all new sex crimes, eighty-seven percent of new sex crimes are committed by someone who has no previous sex crimes convictions.


In both her pieces in the LA Times and the Washington Post, Tofte argues forcefully for more money and resources to go to the examination of rape kits — there's a tremendous backlog in the processing of such kits, which can be (and are often supposed to be) checked against a database of known offenders — offenders that she's suggested have a reasonably low recidivism rate that doesn't justify registration. On the other hand, many groups that work on offender issues have correctly noted the use of DNA testing in clearing defendants and those convicted of certain crimes like rape. So, I guess I'm a little suspicious now what Tofte's purpose is in changing suddenly from offender-advocacy to victim-advocacy, let alone advocating and researching issues in which HRW has historically never taken much of a stand or an interest.

Lost Promise For Rape Victims [L.A. Times]

A Test of Justice for Rape Victims [Washington Post]

Sarah Tofte [Luther College]

The Wrong Sex Offender Laws [LA Times]

Sarah Tofte finds it striking... [Aztram]

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It seems odd to me that you would said that Human Rights Watch isn't involved in "victim advocacy". In my experience, much of what they do is victim advocacy, whether it's victims of police brutality, torture, ethnic cleansing, or war. They have a whole women's rights section on their website, which you would have noticed if you had glanced at it even for a second before publishing this piece, with reports about everything from women workers to sexual autonomy, written from a human rights lens. Furthermore, I find it disturbing that you would play off the interests of rape victims against the interests of people who had been wrongfully accused of a crime. Isn't it in everyone's best interest that the people who are charged with rape are actually the people who did it, and that we process the evidence that could prove that?