Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. With the crime of sexual assault, the victim’s body is a part of the crime scene. When the victim reports the assault to the police, a hospital or rape crisis center, a doctor or nurse will photograph, swab and conduct an invasive and exhaustive examination of the victim’s entire body for DNA evidence left behind by the attacker—a process that takes four to six hours to complete. That evidence is collected and preserved in a sexual assault evidence kit, commonly referred to as a rape kit.
When tested, DNA evidence contained inside rape kits can be an incredibly powerful tool to solve and prevent crime. It can identify an unknown assailant and confirm the presence of a known suspect. It can affirm the survivor's account of the attack and discredit the suspect. It can connect the suspect to other crime scenes. It can exonerate the wrongly convicted or accused.
To accomplish these things, however, rape kits must be tested.
In the past, the federal government estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested in police and crime storage facilities across the country in what is known as the rape kit backlog. Each kit represents a lost opportunity to bring healing and justice to a survivor of sexual violence.
We cannot be sure of the total number of untested kits nationwide because most jurisdictions do not have systems for tracking or counting rape kits. Additionally, there is no federal law mandating a nationwide movement toward tracking and testing rape kits, despite efforts by some members of Congress to pass such legislation. However a growing number of states, all across the country, are making real reforms to end the backlog.
Jurisdictions often cite lack of resources and personnel as the largest barrier to processing more rape kits. Another, less frequently acknowledged, cause of the backlog is unwillingness among many law enforcement agencies to prioritize and dedicate sufficient resources to sexual assault cases. Members of law enforcement frequently disbelieve or even blame victims of sexual assault. Despite data proving otherwise, many agencies also maintain the philosophy that testing a rape kit is only useful when a stranger committed the assault. Some do not fully understand the value of rape kit testing.
Over the years, however, we have begun to see progress. Increasingly, states and local jurisdictions are beginning to recognize the value of testing rape kits. They are starting to count, track and test the untested kits in their facilities, and they’re seeing powerful results. For example, in New York City, where there had been a backlog of 17,000 untested rape kits before it was eliminated in 2003, city and law enforcement officials enacted a policy and developed a system to test every rape kit. The city’s arrest rate for rape has since jumped from 40% to 70%.
ENDTHEBACKLOG is a program of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.