Guest Post: Pursuing Justice in Pennsylvania

Today's guest author is Eugene DePasquale, who was sworn in for a second term as Pennsylvania’s 51st auditor general on January 17, 2017. During his first term, DePasquale's work helped protect children from abuse, end the backlog of untested rape kits, and ensure seniors have access to the services they need. In addition, his audits identified nearly half-a-billion dollars in misspent or potentially recoverable state money, making him a recognized national leader on fiscal accountability and government transparency. Here, Auditor DePasquale shares his insights on the rape kit reform effort in Pennsylvania.

Inadequate communication. Errors in an official state report. Resource shortages. Forensic evidence shelved for 20 years.

I found all these problems and more during an eight-month review of Pennsylvania’s backlog of untested rape kits. And all of them could be leading to delayed justice for rape victims.

My 70-page September 2016 special report evaluated the data collected by the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) from local law enforcement agencies for its first-ever report, which showed 3,044 untested rape kits in the commonwealth, including 1,852 that were backlogged (awaiting testing for 12 months or more).

Specifically, the report examined what caused Pennsylvania’s backlog of kits, whether the backlog could be cleared within the newly mandated three years, and how to prevent future backlogs. We worked with victim advocates, police, crime lab managers and others to highlight the complex problems that exist and to make 10 recommendations for improvement.

One of the major problems the report highlighted is the detrimental effect of poor communication to local law enforcement agencies. Legislation passed in 2015 required that first-ever DOH report, but only a fraction of law enforcement agencies knew about the new law — which in turn caused an undercounting of kits awaiting testing.

Without an accurate count of untested kits, how are crime labs supposed to know how many will be coming in to be tested? An accurate count is the foundation on which every other part of the process to test these kits rests. This is one huge reason why auditing your state’s reported backlog is crucial: Without knowing the scope of the problem, how can anyone effectively plan to eliminate it?

In Pennsylvania, the response to my special report was incredible. For weeks, people emailed and called my office, asking how they could help get these kits tested. Some offered to donate money; others offered to donate their time or their expertise as forensic scientists. Nearly all wanted to know exactly how the state planned to prevent a backlog from occurring again.

Since September, we have stayed on top of this issue, highlighting the good work being done in other states, such as Kentucky, and continuing to push through various channels, including social media, for tweaks to Pennsylvania’s law to improve its effectiveness.

In fact, I am working with State Rep. Brandon Neuman, who sponsored the initial legislation that required the annual rape kit count. Neuman is seeking co-sponsors for legislation that would implement recommendations from my report, including creating a commission of local and state agencies to meet annually and determine exactly what resources and funding are needed to prevent kits from being backlogged again.

This piece is critical because, as we’ve discovered, one of the main challenges is finding sustainable funding to provide the resources necessary to test all current kits and to process future kits in a timely manner.

For example, one-time funding from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is helping both the Philadelphia Police Department’s Office of Forensic Science and the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office — whose jurisdiction includes Pittsburgh — work through their backlogs. As of December 2016, Allegheny County outsourced testing of approximately 250 kits (nearly twice its reported backlog), and Philadelphia had outsourced testing of about 900 (about 65 percent of its reported backlog).

Although that one-time grant is helping alleviate the backlog, the money will not help alleviate another major cause of the backlog: A personnel and technological shortage that exists because of budgetary constraints on county and state governments.

Though it’s a challenging issue with complex problems, I will not give up.

My office will continue to shine a spotlight on untested rape kits in Pennsylvania. Keeping this issue in the forefront of residents’ minds is critical to achieving success — which to me ultimately means victims achieving justice.

-By Auditor General DePasquale, January 23, 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