"To me, the backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how we regard these crimes in our society. Testing rape kits sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence: You matter. What happened to you matters. Your case matters. For that reason, The Joyful Heart Foundation, which I founded in 2004, has made ending the rape kit backlog our #1 advocacy priority."
- Mariska Hargitay
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, at a hospital, or at a rape crisis center, the victim can choose to have a doctor or nurse 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 by 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 and identify serial offenders. It can exonerate the wrongly convicted or accused.
To accomplish these things, however, rape kits must be tested.
It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested in police department and crime lab 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 and safety to a community.
The rape kit backlog comprises two distinct but related problems. The first part of the backlog occurs when rape kits are collected and booked into evidence, but detectives and/or prosecutors do not request DNA analysis. These kits may remain in a police evidence storage facility indefinitely. This is often referred to as the “untested” or “unsubmitted” rape kit backlog. The Joyful Heart Foundation defines an untested and/or backlogged kit as one that has not been submitted to an accredited public or private crime lab for testing within 10 days of being booked into evidence.
The second part of the backlog occurs in crime laboratory facilities, where rape kits that have been submitted for testing are awaiting DNA analysis. Many kits that are submitted to crime labs are not tested in a timely manner, creating the second part of the backlog. The Joyful Heart Foundation defines a “backlogged” kit at the DNA testing lab as one that has not been tested within 30 days of receipt by the lab.
We believe that every rape kit booked into evidence and connected to a reported sexual assault should be submitted to a crime lab for testing, and that crime labs must commit to testing rape kit evidence in a timely manner.
Since most jurisdictions do not have systems for counting or tracking rape kits, we cannot be sure of the total number of untested rape kits nationwide. Additionally, there is no federal law mandating a tracking and testing rape kits. It is estimated, however, that there are hundreds of thousands of untested kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the country.
However a growing number of states, all across the country, are making real reforms to end the backlog. States and local jurisdictions have started to count, track and test the untested kits in their facilities, and are seeing powerful results.
- In Detroit, 2,616 matches have been made on the DNA database, identifying 770 potential serial rapists who have committed crimes in 40 states and Washington, D.C.
- Over the past few years, Cleveland has submitted 4,373 kits for testing which have yielded 1,898 matches in the DNA database. More than 515 defendants have been indicted as a result. The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office anticipates indicting over 1,000 defendants within the next five years—a third of them serial rapists- as a result of clearing this backlog.
- Testing rape kits not only makes communities safer, but also saves them millions of dollars. According to a study from the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western University, the Cleveland backlog testing program has saved the community a net total of $38.7 million dollars, or $8,893 per tested sexual assault kit.
END THE BACKLOG is an initiative 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.