Victims can choose to receive a forensic exam after a sexual assault to collect DNA evidence from their attacker. The exams cover the victim’s entire body and take four to six hours to complete. The evidence collected from the exam is placed in a special container called a rape kit for safe storage.
The rape kit backlog refers to the hundreds of thousands of rape kits that have been left untested in law enforcement and crime lab storage facilities across the United States. Initial reports have documented 140,000 untested kits in just 27 states. The exact number is unknown and continually grows as new kits are discovered – and as new evidence is obtained.
Most states have no clear laws on how to handle rape kits. State law enforcement officers decide whether to send kits to a lab for testing. Several factors influence the decision to test a kit. The costs of testing one rape kit range from $500 to $1,500. Many departments only pursue cases they anticipate have the best chance of getting solved or have an unknown attacker.
Lack of training and bias by law enforcement also prevent testing. Police often don’t believe survivors’ claims. Victim-blaming and negative stereotyping also influence the handling of kits. Research shows officers disbelieve sexual assault victims more than any other victim.
DNA evidence from rape kits gets put into a national database, which helps to identify unknown assailants, link crimes together, and identify serial offenders. It can confirm a known suspect, affirm the survivor’s account of the attack, discredit a suspect, and exonerate the innocent.
An initiative in Detroit to test all 11,341 kits in storage resulted in 2,616 matches in the DNA database and identification of 770 potential serial rapists who committed crimes in 40 states.
This is why it’s important to test every kit. Rapists are often serial offenders. Untested kits mean that rapists remain in communities and can attack other victims.
Only nine states have passed laws mandating the testing of backlogged rape kits: Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Connecticut, Michigan, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington have passed laws to test all newly-collected rape kits in specified timeframes.
Several other states passed legislation requiring an inventory of all backlogged rape kits. These audits help decide whether states have enough personnel to complete testing in state labs or whether a contract with a private lab is needed.
Some states have included rape kit testing funding in their budgets. Others use federal funds designated for this purpose. So far, $99.6 million has been approved to address backlogs in police departments across the US. Funding is also available through other public funds and private foundations.
New York City cleared their backlog of 17,000 rape kits, resulting in 2,000 DNA matches and 200 arrests.
Houston processed 6,000 rape kits, resulting in 850 matches in the DNA database, 66 new charges, and the confirmation of 132 previous arrests made without DNA evidence.
Ohio law enforcement has submitted over 13,500 kits for testing; 10,000 have been processed by forensic scientists, resulting in 3,377 matches in the DNA database, 400 indictments, and more than 100 convictions.
Colorado processed 3,542 rape kits resulting in 691 matches in the DNA database and 1,556 new profiles generated.
Illinois processed 4,000 rape kits resulting in 927 matches in the DNA database.
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Download this information about the cost of rape in Minnesota here.