State/Local Government Responses
In 2011, Joyful Heart joined in partnership with the city of Detroit, Michigan to participate in a groundbreaking project funded by the National Institute of Justice Strategic Approaches to Sexual Assault Kit Evidence action-research grant. We are part of a multidisciplinary team of police, prosecutors, crime lab personnel, city leaders and advocates who are analyzing the causes of Detroit's backlog of 11,000 untested rape kits and developing and implementing a plan for testing. As testing begins, we are already seeing powerful examples of how testing rape kits can solve crime and bring healing and justice to survivors. For example, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office has already identified 21 potential serial rapists from the first 153 rape kits that have been tested and entered into CODIS, the national DNA database.
New York City
In 1999 the New York Police Department (NYPD) discovered that it had a backlog of 16,000 untested rape kits in its storage facilities. Under the directive of then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and then-Police Chief Howard Safir, and with budgetary support from the New York City Council, the NYPD sent every untested kit to a private crime lab for testing with a goal of getting test results back from every kit by 2003. While the kits were at the private lab the NYPD, the New York City DNA Lab, and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office implemented policies to ensure that the rape kit backlog would remain eliminated. The NYPD was directed to send every new booked rape kit to the crime lab for testing; the crime lab hired additional DNA criminalists to keep up with the increased number of kits entering the testing queue; and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office established a specialized cold case unit, staffed by two senior attorneys, to investigate any leads from testing the backlogged kits. The crime lab also created a notification system for cold hits; when the DNA profile from a tested rape kit matches a profile in the DNA database an electronic system ensures that the crime lab, Police, and District Attorney's Office are all notified at the same time.
As of 2009 the tested kits yielded 2,000 cold hits and 200 active investigations, arrests, or prosecutions. Testing the rape kit backlog also exonerated one wrongfully convicted defendant. While the DNA test results identified assailants in stranger rape cases, they also created new leads in non-stranger rape cases.
Since the rape kit testing was completed in 2003, the NYPD has seen its arrest rate for rape increase dramatically, from 40 percent to 70 percent of reported cases, and there are increased numbers of prosecutions and convictions for rape.
In 2008, the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff's Department discovered they had 12,669 untested rape kits in their police storage facilities. Of these untested kits, at least 1,218 were from unsolved cases in which the attacker was a stranger to the victim. And 499 kits were attached to cases past the 10-year statute of limitations for rape in California, making it impossible to prosecute the alleged assailants for rape even if they were to be identified. Under California law, if those 499 kits had been opened within two years of the attack, the statute would no longer apply. Thousands more rape kits were destroyed untested.
The backlog grew even as the Police and Sheriff's Departments received millions of federal dollars from the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant, a program the US Congress created to address rape kit backlogs.
At the time, these untested kits comprised the largest known rape kit backlog in the United States. Since its discovery, the police and sheriff's departments have worked to reform the way they process rape kits. Both departments eliminated detective discretion of rape kit testing, meaning that every rape kit booked into police evidence is sent to the crime lab for testing. The Los Angeles police have hired additional crime lab analysts to process more rape kits, and used federal funds to outsource the rape kits in the backlog. [For more information on Los Angeles, link to Chief Beck interview and HRW LA report]
California is the only state that requires law enforcement to inform victims of sexual assault about the status of their rape kit evidence, although this right is limited to cases in which the assailant's identity is unknown.
On September 1, 2010, Illinois became the only one state to require that every rape kit booked into law enforcement be tracked and sent to the crime lab for testing. The Illinois law was prompted by news reports in 2009 and 2010 that the state was sending only 20% of the rape kits collected by police from victims to the crime lab for testing. The new law sets up a tracking system for rape kit evidence, and requires regular reports to the public about the status of rape kits testing in the state. [link here to HRW report on IL, Illinois AG page on this, op-ed with MH and AG]