A sexual assault forensic exam, also known as a rape kit, is DNA evidence collected from a survivor’s body, clothing, and personal belongings. A kit also includes medical care that a survivor may need at the time of examination. The examinations are carried out by sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE), who are specially trained to attend to rape victims. The crime doesn’t have to be reported in order for the exam to be done, but the kit preserves evidence in case a survivor decides to report the assault at a later time.
This is important as DNA evidence increases the likelihood of prosecution, and even if the perpetrator isn’t sentenced, their DNA might still be added to the national database. Future crimes that the assailant commits will be tied directly to them. However, backlog is the reality of rape kits across the nation. Rape kit backlog happens when evidence from a kit is never sent to a crime lab and is left in a precinct’s storage instead. There are also instances where the kit was sent to a lab but was left untested.
According to End The Backlog, a program of the national nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation, no Missouri law requires law enforcement to count, track, or test rape kits. As of 2020, Missouri has 5,424 untested kits. When rape kits are tested, it confirms the suspect, identifies an unknown attacker, affirms the survivor’s account of the attack, and/or exonerates an innocent party.
Additionally, a cost study carried out by the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University found that testing backlogged kits saves money and prevents future assaults. When Detroit tested all 11,341 of its stored kits, the results found more than 2,000 matches in the database and identified 824 potential serial rapists who had committed crimes in 40 states and Washington, D.C.
Rape burdens survivors, both psychologically and financially. End The Backlog tallied the numbers and calculated the tangible and intangible costs of sexual assault. Tangible costs are defined as medical expenses, missed work, and any out-of-pocket expenses, which totaled up to $5,556 per survivor. Intangible expenses, which include pain and suffering, decreased quality of life, and mental duress added up to nearly $200,000 per survivor. However, for every four rape convictions that happen, one rape is prevented thanks to rape testing kits.
If testing rape kits is so important and beneficial, why are there backlogs across the United States? To start, many jurisdictions don’t have clear policies concerning the testing of rape kits. Most of the time, kits are tested on a case-by-case basis, and several factors play into whether or not a kit is sent for testing, including whether or not sexual assault is a priority for the department, law enforcement bias, lack of knowledge and training among professionals, shortage of SANEs, and lack of resources.
When investigators in Cleveland, Ohio, began testing their thousands of backlogged kits, they found leads on more than 480 serial offenders. When the investigators uploaded the DNA from rape kits done on people who knew their attackers personally, they found that the attacker’s DNA matched kits from survivors they raped and were a stranger to. They also found that rapists often commit a slew of other attacks at the time of the attack, including robbery and theft. “I don’t think there will ever be another time in history when so many criminals can be arrested so easily, so quickly, so inexpensively, and with such certainty,” stated Tim McGinty, a Cuyahoga County prosecutor.
According to the federal government, the police have stored more than 200,000 untested rape kits. However, the real number of untested kits is unknown as cities across the country keep their numbers secret. Some cities don’t count their number of kits at all, but the Joyful Heart Foundation believes there might be more than several hundred thousand.
Detectives who conduct training programs for the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) say that one of the biggest obstacles precincts face isn’t the testing of the kits themselves but the skepticism of the officers. Despite the training, many officers believe that women lie about being raped. However, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), only two to eight percent of rapes are falsely reported. Additionally, in many cases across the country, detectives fail to interview the victim and many don’t question the suspect.
Justice is attainable for victims of sex crimes. However, initiatives such as End The Backlog show that justice is contingent on how seriously these crimes are taken. They also depend on state law and the infrastructure of precincts throughout the nation. Education and action are the keys to fighting the prevalence of sexual assault.