Federal Government Boosts Rape Kit Reform Efforts

The movement to end the untested rape kit backlog got a significant boost from the federal government this month when it issued the first-ever national guidelines for handling rape kits. On August 8, the National Institute of Justice—the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice—released National Best Practices for Sexual Assault Kits: A Multidisciplinary Approach, which includes 35 recommendations for victim-centered approaches for responding to sexual assault cases.

Over the last two years, a group of experts, including survivors, prosecutors, law enforcement professionals, victim advocates, lab employees, and medical practitioners, has worked to identify best practices for the increasing number of communities across the country grappling with untested rape kits. The resulting report makes recommendations about multiple issues related to rape kit handling, including medical forensic examinations, law enforcement practices, crime laboratory procedures, victim re-engagement protocols, and policy considerations.

Recommendation: Test All Kits

For almost a decade, jurisdictions across the country have worked to address untested rape kits with only limited research or guidance on best practices. Now, for the first time, the federal government has unambiguously declared that testing every rape kit connected to a reported crime is a best practice. Testing all kits is victim-centered, trauma-informed, and promotes public safety. Many communities across the country are already doing this; others are working towards it. This guidance bolsters their efforts.

Recommendations: Inventories and Tracking Systems

The report’s recommendations support other key pillars of Joyful Heart’s policy platform for rape kit reform, including the importance of recurring inventories and developing tracking systems for rape kits. Our message has always been that accountability and transparency are key to ending the rape kit backlog, and finding out the scope of the problem is the first step to reform. The report strongly supports this position, suggesting jurisdictions start with an initial inventory of unsubmitted rape kits in law enforcement storage, then conduct annual inventories to ensure all kits are tested moving forward. In addition, the report recommends electronic tracking of all rape kits from collection through final disposition. More than 30 states have conducted at least an initial inventory of untested rape kits. Five have passed laws requiring electronic tracking systems, and more are sure to follow.

Recommendation: Victims’ Rights

The most important federal guideline is that all work to end the untested rape kit backlog be multidisciplinary, survivor-centered, and trauma-informed. The report urges jurisdictions to create victim notification protocols that ensure victims are informed about the status of their kits and cases. Granting victims the right to notice about the location and testing status of their rape kits is the cornerstone of Joyful Heart's work to end the backlog. We are heartened by this strong recommendation of providing survivors with information about their cases, which will keep them engaged in the criminal justice process and support their healing.

In recognition of the importance of the evidence collected in the SAK, testing all SAKs reported to law enforcement is a priority.

National Best Practices for Sexual Assault Kits, 76

The report also touches on related concerns, including crime lab efficiency, decreasing turnaround times for testing rape kits, reforming the statute of limitations, and improving collection of sexual assault evidence.

READ THE FULL REPORT

This report underscores what we have long known: when communities test all kits, unsolved cases are resolved, and a path to healing and justice opens for survivors. Testing all kits also creates a more just and efficient criminal justice system. We are energized by the report; its recommendations align closely with Joyful Heart’s six pillars of rape kit reform and will be a valuable tool for us and the legislators and advocates we are working with across the country.

-By Ilse Knecht, Director of Policy & Advocacy, August 29, 2017

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.

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END THE BACKLOG is a JOYFUL HEART FOUNDATION initiative and a proud supporter of