Eliminating the Rape Kit Backlog

In this guest blog post, Beth Sherouse writes about the alarming number of untested rape kits in the United States and activists’ efforts to eliminate the backlog.

In recent years, journalists, activists, and human rights groups have made repeated attempts to raise awareness of the nationwide backlog in processing physical evidence from rape cases. In jurisdictions across the country, millions of rape kits sit in back rooms, untested for DNA evidence, and thus unable to facilitate the process of bringing rapists to justice. According to a report from the National Institute of Justice, at the very least, these backlogs delay the criminal justice process. “In worst-case situations,” the NIJ report explains, “such delays can contribute to added victimization by serial offenders or imprisonment for people who have not committed a crime.”

Congress passed the DNA Initiative in 2004, prompting the federal government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars between 2005 and 2008 attempting to remedy the backlogs and create a more comprehensive national DNA database. While these federal efforts certainly helped, the backlogs remain. A 2010 report on the issue in Illinois, for example, found that out of over 7,400 rape kits collected since 1995, only about 1,500 had been tested. For some large cities in the US, there are thousands of untested rape kits, with Human Rights Watch estimating backlogs of over 11,000 in San Antonio, 4,000 in Houston, and 1,200 in Albuquerque.

While sexual assault prevention advocates are working to raise awareness of these backlogs, they face an uphill battle. In Detroit last year, prosecutor Kym Worthy began a campaign to investigate the city’s backlog of more than 11,000 untested rape kits. “I was flabbergasted,” to find out about the backlog, she said. “When victims go through a three-hour-plus rape-kit exam, they expect police to use the evidence to catch the rapist.” Within its first few months, and after testing just a fraction of the rape kits and running their results through federal DNA database CODIS, Worthy’s investigation revealed at least 21 serial rapists that were active in the Detroit era. One of the kits contained the DNA of a convicted rapist who went on to rape and murder five women, suggesting tragically that those five women might still be alive if that rape kit had been tested in a timely manner.

A major challenge in investigating these backlogged rape kits is the price of processing them. Testing all the evidence in each kit costs around $1,200 to $1,500. Another problem these investigators face is that, in many cases, the statute of limitations has already passed on the crime, which therefore cannot be prosecuted. Still, Worthy and others hope to bring closure to survivors and their families and use the evidence to broaden existing DNA database evidence.

Despite these challenges, the backlogs seem to be receiving more public attention lately. In hopes of raising awareness about this nationwide problem, actor Mariska Hargitay of NBC’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, recently began developing a documentary on the rape kit backlog. “Simply put,” Hargitay wrote in a column with co-author Kym Worthy, “the backlog allows rapists to get away with their crimes and, in many cases, to rape again.... We must eliminate this backlog. We must give survivors the justice they deserve. We must put dangerous assailants behind bars. The stakes are simply too high.” Hopefully, Hargitay’s project and local campaigns like those in Detroit and Cleveland will raise interest and awareness regarding this national issue and make justice a reality for more survivors of sexual assault.

Beth Sherouse recently earned her Ph.D. in History from the University of South Carolina. She has been a gay rights activist for 10 years and has a passion for politics, local government, and rescuing basset hounds.