What is the backlog?
With the crime of rape, a victim's body is part of the crime scene. A sexual assault evidence kit (referred to here as a "rape kit") is the collection of DNA evidence from a rape victim's body. If the victim decides to report the crime to the police, the rape kit is booked into police evidence. Not every one of these booked rape kits will get tested and they become part of what we refer to as the rape kit backlog—untested rape kits in both police storage and crime lab facilities.
We consider every untested rape kit to be a backlogged kit.
In a minority of law enforcement jurisdictions in the United States—notably New York City, Los Angeles, and the state of Illinois—policy or law requires that every rape kit booked into police evidence is sent to the crime laboratory and tested.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of law enforcement jurisdictions do not require that every rape kit be tested. Experts in the federal government estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the United States.
About Sexual Violence
Every year, tens of thousands of individuals report their rape to the police. Despite that figure, rape has the lowest reporting, arrest and prosecution rates of all violent crimes in the United States. The statistics around sexual violence are shocking:
- 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
- Every 2 minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted.
- Only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail.
What is a Rape Kit?
In the United States, a sexual assault evidence collection kit is a set of items used by medical personnel for gathering and preserving a variety of evidence types and providing medical care following a sexual assault that can be used in rape investigation. The kit was developed by Louis R. Vitullo and was for many years referred to as the Vitullo kit. It is commonly referred to as a rape kit.
The contents of the kit vary from state to state, but most kits include the following items:
- Detailed instructions for the examiner
- Forms for documenting the procedure and evidence gathered
- Tubes and containers for blood and urine samples
- Paper bags for collecting clothing and other physical evidence
- Swabs for biological evidence collection
- A large sheet of paper on which the victim undresses to collect hairs and fibers
- Dental floss and wooden sticks for fingernail scrapings
- Glass slides
- Sterile water and saline
- Envelopes, boxes and labels for each of the various stages of the exam
The rape kit examination may take between four and six hours to complete.
When Did the Backlog Begin?
Sexual assault evidence kits were collected from victims starting in the 1970s, but DNA testing was not regularly used as evidence until the mid-1990s, after significant advancements in DNA technology. This means that very few rape kits collected before the 1990s would have been tested for DNA, although they may have been analyzed to determine the perpetrator's blood type.
Thus, ever since rape kit evidence collection exams have existed, there were likely untested rape kits sitting in police storage facilities according to common practice of the time and due to a lack of testing technology. Still, in recent audits of rape kit backlogs, investigators found untested rape kits not just from old cases, but also from new cases that occurred well after DNA evidence technology advances made such evidence valuable.
Why does the backlog exist?
In the many jurisdictions where there is no law or policy that mandates the testing of all collected rape kits, whether or not a kit is tested is based on the discretion of police or prosecutors. There are various reasons why law enforcement may decide not to request a kit for testing, including a lack of resources necessary for testing requests. Untested rape kits also represent the fact that many rape cases are closed before making it very far in the criminal justice system.
Very few rape cases make it to an investigative stage where law enforcement would request the kit for testing. In the United States, according to the latest FBI crime data, the crime of rape has a 24% arrest rate-the lowest recorded arrest rate for rape in nearly 40 years of tracking such information. This means that a rape victim has a one in five chance of seeing her perpetrator brought to justice. It also means that a rapist has a 74% chance of getting away with the crime.
Even when law enforcement does send rape kits to the crime lab for testing, those kits can sit for months and, in some cases, years, before being tested. This delay is often because crime labs lack the resources and personnel to test rape kits in a timely manner. This delay in testing also represents a rape kit backlog.