In the course of their lifetime, nearly 1 in 5 American women will experience rape (sexual penetration without consent). For many of these women, the injustice won’t stop there. Their cases will go cold for years or decades…if not forever.
In fact, according to a report released last week by USA Today, there are at least 70,000 untested rape kits in the United States. As 34 states fail to track untested kits, this is a conservative estimate. The White House, for example, believes that there are close to 400,000 untested kits nationwide.
Rape kits contain forensic DNA evidence collected from victims shortly following a rape. Evidence can include “clothing, fingernail scrapings, and swabs from various body parts”. The collection occurs through an “often invasive process that can take up to six hours to complete”. But the resulting evidence is highly valuable. It can “help identify suspects”, “strengthen criminal cases” leading to “more prosecutions”, and “exonerate the wrongly accused”. For these reasons, experts say “they’ve had many success stories with testing these kits”.
The report of untested rape kits has provoked strong reactions across the nation. In Marion County, Indiana, where only 30% of rape kits have undergone testing since 2000, one expert called it “an inexcusable injustice for potentially thousands of rape victims and a threat to public safety”. Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas) added that “failure to analyze rape kits is shameful” and may lead to the expiration of statues of limitations (deadlines for charging rapists). But most powerful were the reactions of rape victims. In the words of one woman: “When I found out that rape kits weren’t getting tested, that was the next stab in my heart, and I cried for days”.
The causes of the testing backlog are numerous. To begin, the cost to test a single kit is $1,000, an amount that can “stress the budget of local police departments”. Recognizing this cost, Congress passed the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act in 2013, which allocated $750 million for grants to local police forces to support rape kit testing and auditing. While justice officials claim they never received the funds, victims and advocates maintain that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is redirecting the funds to other programs. They also note that the responsible DOJ committee has met only once – over 16 months ago.
In addition to inadequate funds, many police forces lack other necessary resources. In North Carolina, for example, “salaries are not competitive with neighboring states, contributing to a shortage of technicians”. The state also faces insufficient laboratory capacity: “There’s always going to be backlogs in laboratories because the demand is always so high…laboratories are constantly getting all kinds of evidence”.
Given these limitations, many police forces must decide which rape kits to test and not test. As most states “do not have laws setting criteria”, these decisions are often “arbitrary and inconsistent”. Some police forces choose to neglect the kits of “aloof victims” or presumed prostitutes, believing that “what had happened to them was…their own fault”. Others ignore kits when there is “no suspect or no known suspect, even though testing the kits could help identify a suspect”. Furthermore, certain police put aside older kits when there are “immediate cases requiring attention”. Over time, these cases simply “fall through the cracks”.
But there is hope. After hearing the report on untested rape kits, several police forces have “finally pledged action”. The West Lafayette Police Department, for example, says “We are now going to submit all of our sexual-assault kits to a lab”. Similarly, the Leon County Sherriff’s Office has agreed to test its 66 untested kits and institute new practices to prevent future backlogs.
State governments are also getting on board. New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia are considering bills to make kit testing mandatory (as in 6 existing states). Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Oklahoma are examining bills to require inventories of untested kits. North Carolina is building a full-service forensics laboratory and may soon raise technician pay by 10%. Finally, Utah is hiring 5 new technicians and purchasing new lab equipment, including robotics for DNA testing that are “faster, more efficient, and more cost-effective”. Such action is long overdue.
To learn more, please contact Women Organized Against Rape, Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment (PAVE), and the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). To support rape victims, please donate to our partners: Inwood House, Lifeway Network, the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, and Safe Horizon.