Local Organizing Needed to Eliminate Backlog of Rape Kits

July 18, 2018; Palm Beach Post

In 2015, President Barack Obama proposed the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), a $41 million fund intended to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits sitting in storage around the US. As NPQ reported, the rape kit backlog is a priority for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which is privately funded. Fourteen years after Joyful Heart was founded and three years into the US Department of Justice’s SAKI grants program, what’s the status of the backlog?

It’s hard to know. On the website of its End the Backlog initiative, Joyful Heart acknowledges that “there is no comprehensive, national data on the nature and scope of the rape kit backlog,” so their Accountability Project began to request public records from police departments in an effort to get an estimate. As of its last update, they had found 40,000 untested kits in 41 jurisdictions. To be clear, that is 40,000 cases of rape in which no attempt was made to use DNA to find the perpetrator, even though the information was in the police departments’ possession. A study from Case Western Reserve University announced, “The researchers conservatively estimate that 25 percent of rapists go on to commit another reported sexual assault.”

The policies around rape kit testing vary by state and jurisdiction, in an apparently random pattern. Tom Dart, the sheriff from Cook County, Chicago, who found untested kits in Chicago’s neighboring towns, said, “It’s a combination of raging incompetence and just not caring.” One Texas state representative got so fed up with the lack of attention to the backlog in her state that she proposed a crowdfunding solution to get the kits tested.

NPQ pointed out that women with no high school diploma were 400 times more likely to be assaulted than women with a bachelor’s degree, and women of lower income are also more at risk. Is the backlog perhaps partially the result of a national apathy toward the lower status of women without education and means? The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics claims that only 23 percent of rapes are reported, and Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) found that 15 percent of victims say they did not report an attack because they do not believe the police could or would do anything to help.

Kenny Jacoby and Daphne Duret at the Palm Beach Post wondered what the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office had been doing since they got $1 million to test their 1,500 kits. When usable DNA is found, it can be matched against the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, the FBI database of violent offenders. Nearly one thousand kits have been tested, leading to 140 DNA matches and 51 prosecutable leads, but PBSO “did not attempt to contact the victim in 40 and did not speak to any suspects,” according to Jacoby and Duret.

Kentucky has been doing marginally better; Attorney General Andy Beshear, who is running for governor, said his state is “in the process of testing every single kit.” Kentucky used their $1.9 million grant awarded in 2015 to create a task force to not only test all the kits, but provide resources to law enforcement, advocates, and survivors. The task force includes police departments, hospitals, and the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs (KASAP). Over 3,000 cases were in the backlog, and they have so far yielded 398 “hits” to federal suspects and three indictments. Unlike in Florida, victims in Kentucky by law must be notified when a DNA match like this is found. In 2016, the Kentucky AG’s office dedicated $4 million to improvements in the state’s forensic analysis capacity, with a goal to prevent the recurrence of a rape kit backlog. In 2017, the state received almost $3 million in SAKI grant funds to establish a sexual assault cold case unit.

Oklahoma, on the other hand, is still struggling with how to handle well over 7,000 untested kits. Governor Mary Fallin created the Oklahoma Task Force on Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence, but its audit is not SAKI-compliant, so in order to qualify for federal funds, they would have to re-audit the kits. Bob Ravitz, public defender of Oklahoma County, said, “We gathered what the administrative directive from the governor’s office required us to.”

The Oklahoma task force can’t even agree to use the term “backlog” because they’re worried about public outcry, and that there are overlapping definitions of the term from various sources. Oklahoma City police Chief Bill Citty said he’s “not sure that [he] would agree with” putting the DNA information from the kits into a database before the case was prosecuted because of the risk that innocent people would be on record connected to a case.

All this is to say that where police departments and state legislatures have seen pressure from nonprofits, newspapers, and lawmakers, progress has been made. Absent that pressure, though, not enough has been done. SAKI was announced in 2015, and according to Joyful Heart Foundation’s End the Backlog project, only four states have completed audits to determine how many kits they have. (To its credit, Oklahoma is one.) Joyful Heart and others may need to switch to a localized strategy that personalizes this problem for law enforcement until the victims’ need for justice overcomes bureaucratic apathy.—Erin Rubin