By: Molly Curington
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
It is estimated that there are currently well over 100,000 untested rape kits in America. To many people, that statement may not mean much, but to me, it screams one thing: injustice. The rape kit backlog in America is a complex issue. One that cannot be solved in a day, or a month…probably not even in a year, and whose solution will require a coordinated, nationwide effort. So, what is the rape kit backlog and how can we end it?
What is the rape kit backlog?
A rape kit, or sexual assault kit, is a package of items used by medical professionals to collect physical evidence off of a survivor’s body and clothing following a sexual assault. The examination required to collect this evidence is an incredibly long, highly invasive process that is often performed by a sexual assault nurse examiner. Once the evidence is collected, the kit should be sent to a crime lab for testing. The ultimate goal is for the crime lab to develop a DNA profile for the offender based on the evidence in the kit. This profile can then be entered into CODIS (the FBI’s national DNA database) and aid in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases. However, all too often this process breaks down somewhere along the way and the evidence remains untested. This is where the backlog comes in. End The Backlog defines an untested or backlogged rape kit as one that has not been sent to an accredited crime lab within 10 days of collection or as one that has not been tested by a crime lab within 30 days of receipt. And although these definitions speak in terms of days, we know of cases where kits have not been tested for 3, 5, or even 20 years. With every backlogged kit comes one survivor who cannot receive justice and one attacker who is not caught. It sends a message to survivors that what happened to them is not a priority, and it emboldens offenders to rape again.
In 2011, the National Institute of Justice conducted research projects in Detroit and Houston to explore the issue of unsubmitted rape kits in each city. The Detroit project’s results showed that 28 percent of the kits tested during the course of the project contained a DNA profile matching one that was already in CODIS. From this they were able to identify 127 serial assaults from the total 1,595 kits that were tested. That is 127 survivors whose assaults could have been prevented, and that number is just from one portion of one city’s untested kits.
How can we end the backlog?
There is no current federal law that mandates the tracking and testing of kits, so it is up to each state to assess their own backlogs and decide how to move forward. Many jurisdictions do not yet have systems in place to do that, making it virtually impossible to know the exact number of backlogged kits. However, based on the jurisdictions that have inventoried and reported their backlogs, it is clear that the number of untested kits is over 100,000. Although it is vital to know that these untested kits exist, the problem does not end there. The cost of testing a single rape kit averages between $1000 and $1500, so many jurisdictions lack the resources to test their backlogged kits. However, as more becomes known about the rape kit backlog, more funds are being allocated to help eliminate it, so jurisdictions can apply for funding through federal grant programs like the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) or the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program.
The Joyful Heart Foundation is a leader in the efforts to eliminate America’s current backlog, and they have developed six pillars to help guide and unify reform efforts across jurisdictions. These pillars are: take inventory of current untested kits, mandate testing of backlogged kits, mandate testing of newly collected kits, establish a rape kit tracking system, grant survivors the right to be notified on the status of their kit, and appropriate funding for rape kit reform. So far eleven states have enacted comprehensive statewide reform that addresses all six pillars. Thirty states, including Arkansas, have enacted limited statewide reform addressing some, but not all, of the six pillars. Three states currently have proposed statewide reform, and six states do not currently have any reform enacted or proposed. Widespread comprehensive reform requires lawmakers who care, but it also requires serious resources and multidisciplinary teams of people dedicated to solving cases and supporting survivors. And while testing rape kits is not all there is to solving sexual assault crimes, it is an important part of the process which promotes public safety, helps bring offenders to justice, and demonstrates to survivors that they matter.