Despite more than a billion dollars in public funding dedicated to helping law enforcement officials test the DNA evidence collected in rape kits, there’s still a huge backlog of untested kits collecting dust in storage facilities across the country, according to advocates who testified at a Senate committee hearing this week.
Because DNA evidence is collected on a local level, we have no idea exactly how many rape kits are languishing unopened in massive warehouses. Advocacy groups in the field believe that the total number is in the hundreds of thousands.
“The backlog sort of falls into two categories. There are kits sitting at labs, waiting to be tested — that number has actually come down dramatically in recent years. But the more hidden backlog involves the rape kits that were collected by law enforcement and are sitting in warehouses and storage facilities, but have never been sent to the lab,” Scott Berkowitz, the president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and one of the experts who testified at Wednesday’s hearing, told ThinkProgress. “Because these are hidden in thousands of locations, there’s no really good national estimate for how many there are.”
In his testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Berkowitz reminded lawmakers exactly what’s involved in collecting the evidence in a so-called “rape kit.” The process typically involves an invasive and hours-long exam that takes place not long after a victim has been traumatized by a sexual assault.
After recounting the details of the crime to the police, the victim allows officials to swab sensitive parts of their body — including their buttocks, armpits, breasts, and mouth — in the hopes of recovering any strands of hair or bodily fluids their attacker may have left behind. They agree to have their genitals examined and photographed. Sometimes, their skin is literally scraped down in an attempt to find anything that could help identify their assailant.
“For someone who’s been raped and has sat through a very long and uncomfortable rape exam, this is a chance for them to get justice,” Berkowitz told ThinkProgress. “After the sacrifice they’ve made, they certainly deserve it. And we owe it to them to do everything we can to try to solve this case.”
“Every untested rape kit represents a survivor, and every survivor deserves a path to justice and healing,” agreed Ilse Knect, the senior adviser for policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization dedicated to documenting and ending the national rape kit backlog. She pointed out that, considering the fact that sexual assault is a vastly under-reported crime, the survivors who do make the difficult decision to report should have that commitment taken seriously.
Analyzing rape kits is often too expensive or time-consuming for police departments that are already stretched thin. Sexual assault isn’t a crime that’s particularly well-known for delivering easy convictions, so investigators may assume that chasing the evidence in these cases simply isn’t worth their time.
More than a decade ago, Congress approved the Debbie Smith Act — named after a survivor of sexual assault whose case was solved with the help of DNA evidence — to provide federal grants to law enforcement agencies struggling to find enough resources to dedicate to this area. However, according to a recent investigation by RH Reality Check, it’s unclear whether those funds are making a real difference because they aren’t exclusively used for issues pertaining to sexual assault.
According to the advocates pressuring lawmakers to appropriate more funding for ending the backlog, failing to make an effort to test the DNA evidence in rape kits hampers rape prevention efforts on both an individual and a societal level. It essentially communicates to survivors that their cases don’t matter, reinforcing the fact that our culture doesn’t take sexual assault seriously. It also prevents law enforcement officials from making communities safer.
“Rapists are overwhelmingly serial criminals,” Berkowitz pointed out. “The more we can do to identify them and get more of them off the street — it’s one of the most effective rape prevention programs we have.”
And tackling the evidence that’s been left untouched for years isn’t only about solving cold cases. Knect says that addressing the rape kit backlog can help educate law enforcement officials about the nature of sexual assault, ultimately changing the way they choose to handle these cases moving forward. For instance, the database of DNA evidence has helped prove that many rapists are serial offenders who assault both strangers and personal acquaintances — challenging the conventional wisdom in the field, which used to assume that people who commit sexual assaults don’t cross over in this way.
“Everything we’re learning from these untested kits — which cases weren’t taken seriously and which cases were shelved — all of that needs to be applied to what’s happening today so we don’t make the same mistakes,” Knect said. “It’s not just about the old kits. We also are trying to change to reform what we’re doing with the rape victims who are walking in and reporting today, and the way the justice system reacts to survivors now.”
In the absence of comprehensive data about the extent of the backlog, Joyful Heart works to independently verify the number of untested kits in individual cities. Just this week, the organization released new data documenting more than 9,000 untested rape kits in major cities in North Carolina, Florida, Missouri, Oregon, and California.
It’s perhaps counterintuitive, but Knect’s group believes that these huge numbers of untested kits actually represent important progress. According to Joyful Heart, transparency about the work that’s left to be done is the first step in figuring out a way to address the backlog. Once city officials become aware of how many tests are collecting dust, and particularly if that revelation is covered unfavorably in the media, they’re often embarrassed enough to commit to some steps to fix the problem.
There are other areas of recent progress that advocates in the field are optimistic about, too. Last year, Congress approved an additional $41 million in federal funding to help address the backlog. That money is intended to provide more resources for testing, as well as more support to help prosecute the sexual assault perpetrators who may be identified through that testing. At this week’s hearing, groups like RAINN and Joyful Heart asked Congress to continue that funding stream.
On a state level, there’s more legislative action on this issue than ever before. After officials in Detroit committed themselves to ending the city’s backlog, they identified at least 188 serial offenders — and other states started to take notice. This past session, there were 20 different state bills introduced related to auditing or counting rape kits. Kentucky’s state auditor recently launched an investigation into his state’s untested kits, saying that quantifying the backlog needs to be a top priority. And the Manhattan district attorney’s office has pledged $35 million in grant money to help other departments work through their untested DNA evidence.
“I feel like we really are in a moment right now,” Knect said. “We’re seeing the federal government provide a commitment to testing kits and we’re also seeing a lot of progress in the states. This sort of took off in the last couple years in a way that was pretty amazing to me. I think everyone is coming together and feeling this sense of, we can do this and we’re going to push this agenda forward together. It’s a time where everyone feels a lot of hope.”
“I am optimistic,” Berkowitz said. “I think it’s clear now that this is a problem nationally. A lot of cities and states have started taking this more seriously. Sometimes it came through pressure from media, sometimes through politicians, and sometimes seeing other cities with big backlogs has prompted officials to say, hey, we better figure out what we have before we get embarrassed. I think there’s a lot of movement on this.”