Rape Kit Backlog
Every year, more than 200,000 individuals report their rape to the police (over 90 percent are women, and statistics about child rape are not included in annual government reporting data). Almost all are asked to submit to the collection of DNA evidence from their bodies, which is then stored in a small package called a rape kit. It is an invasive and sometimes traumatic process that takes four to six hours to complete. But the potential benefits are enormous: testing of the DNA evidence in a rape kit can identify an unknown perpetrator, confirm the presence of a known assailant, corroborate the victim’s account of the rape, and exonerate innocent suspects.
Unfortunately, in the United States today there are an estimated 400,000-500,000untested rape kits sitting in police evidence storage facilities and crime labs across the country. Given that rape has the lowest reporting, arrest, and prosecution rates of all violent crimes in the United States, the revolution in DNA technology could move many of these rape cases forward in the criminal justice system. Untested rape kit evidence represents lost justice for rape victims and a potential threat to public safety, as rapists who could be identified and prosecuted may remain at large.
Comprehensive studies show that one in six adult women have been victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Women face an unacceptably high risk of sexual violence in this country, and the United States can do a better job of providing redress for victims, bringing offenders to justice, and protecting society from future crimes of rape. One path toward a stronger criminal justice response to rape is to eliminate the rape kit backlog.
One important way Congress can help move the United States closer to that goal is to:
Co-Sponsor the Justice for Sexual Assault Survivors Act of 2009, which would amend the Debbie Smith Act to require states to use a specified portion of their grants on rape kit testing, and to report regularly to the Department of Justice on their number of untested rape kits and on progress made towards testing those kits. In 2004, Congress passed legislation to address the rape kit backlog. The Debbie Smith Act, named after a rape victim whose case was adversely affected by the rape kit backlog, was originally intended to provide grant money to states for rape kit testing, but was expanded to allow states to use their grants for testing any DNA in a backlog, not just rape kits. Congress reauthorized the Debbie Smith Act, also known as the DNA Backlog Reduction Grant Program, in September 2008. No hearings were held on the effectiveness of the program or how it might be improved. Reporting by journalists and research by Human Rights Watch has found that many eligible entities have never applied for Debbie Smith grants; those that received money sometimes failed to spend it in a timely manner; and it is unclear how much, if any, of the money is being used to test rape kits. For example, despite receiving more than $4 million in Debbie Smith grants, the Los Angeles Police Department actually saw its rape kit backlog grow from 2,300 in 2002 to 7,300 in 2008, and it’s not clear if any Debbie Smith funds were used to test rape kits. The Justice for Sexual Assault Survivors Act of 2009 would remedy the gaps in the Debbie Smith grants by requiring grantees to use a portion of the money for rape kit testing, demonstrate a plan to eliminate their rape kit backlog, and report all untested rape kits in storage facilities to the Department of Justice.