What the Numbers - and Lack Thereof - Really Tell Us

When the team at Joyful Heart began gathering data for the new interactive map on endthebacklog.org, illustrating everything we know about the rape kit backlog, we worried that the map might be a bit bare. We know so little about where backlogs exist and how many rape kits sit untested at police departments and crime labs across the nation. Our map could convey only numbers from the handful of cities and states that have taken steps to determine how many untested kits they possess. 

Looking now at the final version of the map—or more accurately, the final version that we're regularly updating with new information—the results are actually very powerful. Despite comprehensive rape kit reforms in four states, investigative reports uncovering backlogs in cities across the country and officials who have made the number of untested kits in their communities publicly known, there is still more we do not know than we do know. Many visitors to the map will see that their states are designated as “No State Reform, No Backlog Info.”  This designation actually speaks volumes about the state’s response to sexual assault. 

The lack of an official count of the untested kits in a particular jurisdiction does not generally signify that there is no backlog there. Instead, it likely means members of law enforcement have not gone into their evidence rooms to count the kits piling up on the shelves. It also means that state legislators have not enacted legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to account for the untested kits in their custody. Tragically, this lack of information also represents hundreds of thousands of survivors who took the courageous steps of reporting their rape to the police and undergoing the invasive rape kit collection process—only to hear nothing more about their rape kits or their cases.  

The widespread failure to count and track rape kit data is emblematic of larger systemic failings in the way communities respond to and treat survivors. Our criminal justice system is rife with victim blaming, disbelief and refusal to prioritize sexual assault cases. 

On the other hand, the map on our website spotlights several jurisdictions, mostly cities, as shining examples of commitment to rape kit reform. When backlogs have been uncovered—whether through the efforts of local officials, investigative reporters or human rights advocates—these cities and states have convened multidisciplinary teams to explore the causes of the backlog and implemented procedures and protocols to ensure it does not happen again. 

They have counted the untested kits in their facilities, cobbled together the funding needed to clear the backlog and sent the kits for testing. In the jurisdictions truly committed to reform and justice for survivors, law enforcement and prosecutors have followed up on the leads resulting from clearing the backlog, moved cases forward to prosecution and re-engaged survivors. 

When law enforcement agencies count the untested kits in their custody, it’s a critical first step that can lead to comprehensive rape kit reform. Knowing the exact size of a backlog allows a jurisdiction to determine the funding and staffing that will be needed to clear it. From there, stakeholders can come together to develop a plan for bringing justice to survivors who waited for far too long.

- By Elizabeth Swavola, December 20, 2013

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