A rape kit backlog starts for several reasons. One reason is lack of resources. On average, it costs between $1,000 and $1,500 to test one rape kit. As crime labs have grappled with limited capacity and state and local law enforcement budgets have tightened, untested kits have piled up across the country.
- Crime lab resources. While public crime labs throughout the country have struggled to maintain sufficient funding and personnel in recent years, technology has advanced and the demand for DNA testing has grown dramatically. In addition to rape kit evidence, crime labs receive DNA samples from hundreds and in many cases, thousands of crime scenes each year. The result has been exceedingly long turn-around times—sometimes years—for testing.
- Police resources. 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. Law enforcement agencies often lack the technology to track untested rape kits and the personnel needed for shipping or transporting untested kits to a crime lab in a timely manner. These agencies further lack resources and staffing to investigate and follow up on leads resulting from rape kit testing.
Another reason behind the backlog is detective discretion. In the majority of jurisdictions, the decision whether to send a rape kit for testing rests solely within the discretion of the officer assigned to the case. 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. More than with any other crime, members of law enforcement frequently disbelieve or even blame victims of sexual assault rather than focusing on bringing the perpetrator to justice.
- Whether the case is likely to move forward. Due to a lack of understanding about how trauma can affect a survivor of rape, officers often misinterpret survivors’ reactions and choices in the immediate aftermath of the assault as being “uncooperative” or “not credible.” In addition to the biological and emotional impact of recovering from the direct trauma, survivors also may be hesitant to participate in the criminal justice process for a number of reasons, including fear of retaliation, being treated poorly by members of law enforcement, shame and not wanting others, such as family and friends, to know about the assault.
- Whether the identity of the perpetrator is known. Many jurisdictions only test kits in cases where the assailant is unknown in order to attempt to identify a suspect through DNA evidence. It is important to remember, however, that rape kit testing has significant value beyond identifying an unknown suspect, including the ability to confirm a suspect’s contact with a victim, corroborate the victim’s account of the attack, link unsolved crimes to a serial offender and exonerate innocent suspects. Testing every rape kit booked into evidence ensures greater access to justice for survivors and signals to perpetrators that they will be held accountable for their crimes.
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 as testing has begun on a backlog of nearly 4,000 kits. And in Memphis, over 5,000 kits have already been tested as the Memphis Police Department addresses their backlog of 12,164 kits.