Please note, this post will be talking about sexual violence. If this is a triggering topic for you, please do not continue.
As a survivor of a sexual assault that occurred in 2000, the issue of advocacy has been central to my life. I've been lucky enough to have an amazing mother, husband and support system that has created a safe space for me to heal properly from this event, and the ability to use it to motivate and inspire change. While working with children, I've run into far too many (especially teen girls) who have been assaulted in one manner or another. The scary statistic that 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their life time is staggering. (This stat is also based off of reported rapes, which far too many go unreported.)
For a while now, I've been writing letters to various state and national representatives regarding the backlog of rape kits, the evidence collected by a hospital immediately following an assault. End The Backlog is partnering with Mariska Hargitay's Joyful Heart Foundation to raise attention to this important issue.
You can find all the following information at their respective websites.
What is the backlog?With the crime of rape, a victim's body is part of the crime scene. A sexual assault evidence kit (referred to here as a "rape kit") is the collection of DNA evidence from a rape victim's body. If the victim decides to report the crime to the police, the rape kit is booked into police evidence. Not every one of these booked rape kits will get tested and they become part of what we refer to as the rape kit backlog—untested rape kits in both police storage and crime lab facilities.
We consider every untested rape kit to be a backlogged kit.
In a minority of law enforcement jurisdictions in the United States—notably New York City, Los Angeles, and the state of Illinois—policy or law requires that every rape kit booked into police evidence is sent to the crime laboratory and tested.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of law enforcement jurisdictions do not require that every rape kit be tested. Experts in the federal government estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the United States.
About Sexual Violence
Every year, tens of thousands of individuals report their rape to the police. Despite that figure, rape has the lowest reporting, arrest and prosecution rates of all violent crimes in the United States. The statistics around sexual violence are shocking:
- 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
- Every 2 minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted.
- Only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail.
What is a Rape Kit?
In the United States, a sexual assault evidence collection kit is a set of items used by medical personnel for gathering and preserving a variety of evidence types and providing medical care following a sexual assault that can be used in rape investigation. The kit was developed by Louis R. Vitullo and was for many years referred to as the Vitullo kit. It is commonly referred to as a rape kit.
The contents of the kit vary from state to state, but most kits include the following items:
- Detailed instructions for the examiner
- Forms for documenting the procedure and evidence gathered
- Tubes and containers for blood and urine samples
- Paper bags for collecting clothing and other physical evidence
- Swabs for biological evidence collection
- A large sheet of paper on which the victim undresses to collect hairs and fibers
- Dental floss and wooden sticks for fingernail scrapings
- Glass slides
- Sterile water and saline
- Envelopes, boxes and labels for each of the various stages of the exam
When Did the Backlog Begin?
Sexual assault evidence kits were collected from victims starting in the 1970s, but DNA testing was not regularly used as evidence until the mid-1990s, after significant advancements in DNA technology. This means that very few rape kits collected before the 1990s would have been tested for DNA, although they may have been analyzed to determine the perpetrator's blood type.
Thus, ever since rape kit evidence collection exams have existed, there were likely untested rape kits sitting in police storage facilities according to common practice of the time and due to a lack of testing technology. Still, in recent audits of rape kit backlogs, investigators found untested rape kits not just from old cases, but also from new cases that occurred well after DNA evidence technology advances made such evidence valuable.
Why does the backlog exist?
In the many jurisdictions where there is no law or policy that mandates the testing of all collected rape kits, whether or not a kit is tested is based on the discretion of police or prosecutors. There are various reasons why law enforcement may decide not to request a kit for testing, including a lack of resources necessary for testing requests. Untested rape kits also represent the fact that many rape cases are closed before making it very far in the criminal justice system.
Very few rape cases make it to an investigative stage where law enforcement would request the kit for testing. In the United States, according to the latest FBI crime data, the crime of rape has a 24% arrest rate-the lowest recorded arrest rate for rape in nearly 40 years of tracking such information. This means that a rape victim has a one in five chance of seeing her perpetrator brought to justice. It also means that a rapist has a 74% chance of getting away with the crime.
Even when law enforcement does send rape kits to the crime lab for testing, those kits can sit for months and, in some cases, years, before being tested. This delay is often because crime labs lack the resources and personnel to test rape kits in a timely manner. This delay in testing also represents a rape kit backlog.
Where is the backlog? Where is it being resolved?
There are no comprehensive, national numbers on the nature and scope of the rape kit backlog. Numerous experts have estimated that there may be hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the country.
Backlogs Across the United States
The rape kit backlog exists in police and crime lab storage facilities across the country. No state or federal government entity tracks rape kit data nationally or by locality, so it is difficult to determine which states and cities have problems, and which do not. Still, media and non-governmental organization investigative reports have found rape kit backlogs in many jurisdictions across the country, including:
- 1,100 in Albuquerque 1
- 2,100 in Birmingham 1
- 1,200 in Cincinnati 1
- 5,600 in Detroit 1
- 3,800 in Houston 1
- 4,000 across the State of Illinois 2
- 12,500 in Los Angeles 3
- 16,000 in New York City (c. 2003; now eliminated) 4
- 4,100 in Phoenix 1
- 1,050 across the State of Rhode Island 1
- 11,100 in San Antonio 1
Why is Rape Kit Testing Important?
- Rape kit testing can bring justice and healing to rape survivors.
- Testing a rape kit can identify a potential assailant, confirm a suspect's contact with a victim, corroborate the victim's account of the sexual assault and exonerate innocent defendants.
- Rape kit testing works to move more cases through the system. National studies have shown that cases in which a rape kit was collected, tested and contained DNA evidence are more likely to result in arrests and prosecutions.
- When New York City eliminated its rape kit backlog, its arrest rate for rape jumped from 40% to 70%. Testing its backlog resulted in over 200 prosecutions of cold cases. Los Angeles, which is currently working through its rape kit backlog, recently made, according to our interview with Police Chief Charlie Beck, two high profile arrests of serial rapists who were found from testing old rape kits that were in the backlog.
- Rape kit testing can help bring healing to survivors. Not testing rape kits sends the message to survivors that their cases don't matter. It also sends the message to perpetrators that they can escape punishment for rape. Testing kits demonstrates a commitment to survivors to do everything possible to help them find justice and healing.