The backlog of untested rape kits represents the failure of the criminal justice system to take sexual assault seriously, prioritize the testing of rape kits, protect survivors, and hold offenders accountable. There are several key contributing factors that create a backlog.
1. Lack of policies and protocols for rape kit testing
Most jurisdictions do not have clear, written policies outlining the testing of rape kits. This results in decisions being made on a case-to-case basis, without any guidelines, and means that individual detectives may have discretion over whether to send a kit for analysis. Several factors can affect the officer’s decision, including:
- Whether the department prioritizes sexual assaults. Law enforcement agencies often fail to dedicate the time and resources that other crimes receive to sexual assault cases. Too often, sex crimes units are under-resourced and inadequately staffed. This can lead to detectives’ inability to appropriately investigate every case and to the discarding of certain kinds of cases that they may not perceive as prosecutable. Leadership is also central to the way a department handles sexual assault cases. If department leaders do not prioritize rape cases, it is highly likely that these cases will be neglected.
- Law enforcement bias. Negative stereotyping and victim-blaming beliefs are all too prevalent in our society, which affects how cases are handled. Research has shown that members of law enforcement disbelieve victims of sexual assault more than victims of any other type of crime, and often blame them for the crime.
2. Knowledge gaps and lack of training
A lack of training and understanding about sexual assault and its impact on survivors, sex offenders, and forensic DNA can all impact whether a kit is submitted for testing:
- Lack of understanding of how trauma impacts memory and behavior. Trauma can lead survivors to present to law enforcement in a wide range of ways that may, to the untrained eye, seem as if the person’s story is not “credible.” This might include having trouble recalling details and acting in a way that those who do not understand trauma may think is not “typical” for a sexual assault survivor. This lack of knowledge often leads to a detective closing a case as “unfounded.”
- Erroneous interpretation of victim "cooperation." Law enforcement professionals who lack training on victimization and trauma often erroneously label cases as "unfounded" or survivors as “uncooperative.” Survivors may walk away from the criminal justice process for a myriad of reasons, including fear of blame, privacy concerns, and poor treatment by law enforcement or prosecutors. Many survivors disengage from the criminal justice process after completing their first interview due to poor treatment from law enforcement.
- Lack of training about the power of DNA. Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors may not be aware of the power of DNA and DNA databases to solve and prevent crime. Some do not fully understand the value of rape kit testing, or understand which kits can be sent for testing.
- Lack of training about sex offenders and their criminal patterns. In order to make informed determinations about sexual assault cases, law enforcement professionals need to understand how sex offenders behave. Perpetrators of sexual assault use shame and fear to lead victims to believe that no one will believe them. Perpetrators may purposefully target vulnerable populations such as children, drug users, the homeless, non-English-speakers, and/or sex workers.
3. Whether the identity of the perpetrator is known
Many jurisdictions only test kits in cases where the assailant is unknown, in the hopes of identifying a suspect through DNA evidence. Rape kit testing, however, has significant value beyond identifying an unknown suspect. Testing rape kits can link unsolved crimes to a serial offender, confirm a suspect’s contact with a victim, corroborate the victim’s account of the attack, and exonerate innocent suspects. Acquaintance rapists may also be serial offenders, and they may have also committed crimes against people they don’t know. Testing every rape kit connected to a reported crime ensures that links between crimes will be made, regardless of the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator.
4. Lack of resources
On average, it costs between $1,000 and $1,500 to test one rape kit. Many kits never make it to a crime lab in the first place and instead spend years—even decades—sitting untested in police storage facilities. Lack of essential funding at multiple levels is often a factor in why kits go untested:
- Crime lab resources. Public crime labs throughout the country have struggled to maintain sufficient funding and personnel in recent years, as technology has advanced and the demand for DNA testing has grown. In addition to rape kit evidence, crime labs may receive DNA samples from hundreds, or even thousands, of crime scenes each year. As a result, many labs have exceedingly long turnaround times—sometimes years—for testing DNA evidence, including rape kits.
- Police resources. Law enforcement agencies often lack the technology to track untested rape kits, as well as the personnel needed to ship or transport untested kits to a crime lab in a timely manner. Many also lack the staffing resources necessary to investigate or follow up on leads that arise from the rape kit testing.
5. Outdated or unclear lab policies
Public crime labs across the country increasingly recognize the need to update their DNA testing policies to reflect innovations in the fields of forensic science and criminal justice. In years past, many labs had narrow submission policies, some of which prohibited the submission of rape kits for DNA testing in cases in which the identity of the perpetrator was known to the victim. As more experts advocate for the value of testing all kits, including kits linked to cases with known perpetrators, these labs are shifting their policies to accept all kits. In other jurisdictions, a lack of clear communication between crime labs and law enforcement agencies has led to misunderstandings about what types of kits can be submitted for testing.
Jurisdictions that are deeply invested in bringing justice to survivors and preventing future crimes have dedicated the necessary resources toward addressing their backlogs and moving cases forward. New York City served as a model for the rest of the country when it committed to testing every rape kit in its backlog and aggressively following up on leads and prosecuting cases. Detroit is now working to pull together the resources needed to test every kit in its backlog of more than 11,000 untested kits and to investigate the resulting leads. In Cleveland, prosecutors have initiated cases against hundreds of perpetrators thanks to the testing of their nearly 4,000 kits. And in Memphis, nearly 6,000 kits have already been tested as the Memphis Police Department addresses its backlog of 12,164 kits.