Across the country, tens of thousands of rape kits are sitting in police evidence rooms, just waiting to be tested.
Some have been sitting there for years, but a national push to address the backlog has given the issue a sense of urgency. Several states have taken up the cause. Last week, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced he is forming a task force to find and test old kits and Kentucky is pushing a bill that requires rape kits to be tested within 30 days of collection.
To learn more about what kind of progress has been made, NPR's Rachel Martin spoke with Becca O'Connor, vice president for public policy at the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one of the groups spearheading the effort.
Q: When did it become clear that cities had backlogs from not testing these kits?
A: It started really in the late '90s and early 2000s as we saw advancements in the science itself around DNA technology and as people started to literally open up the evidence rooms and warehouses across the country and discover these troves of kits in different jurisdictions.
Q: Which states have the highest backlogs?
A: Unfortunately, we don't have an overarching number so that's why we still talk in estimates and that maintains the problem. But if you look at states like Texas, where they were one of the pioneers in auditing and inventory in their kits, they had 20,000 kits. We had thousands in cities alone and the numbers were to say the least disturbing. In Illinois, 4,000 kits. Michigan, 11,000 in Detroit alone. In Ohio, 4,000 kits found in Cleveland and then 10,000 kits across the state.
Q: Why weren't these kits being tested for so many years?
A: It's a number of factors: The issue may have been that they couldn't have tested the evidence in the same way that they can now under existing technology. Ten or 15 years ago the DNA technology wasn't in the same place it is today... We now are able to pull much more out of a rape kit through DNA testing than we have been able to in the past.
And beyond that, there was also a different mentality around these crimes. For many people the belief was stranger-perpetrated crimes where you have someone leap out of the bushes, and we know better now. We have more of a push and an inclination to test even in acquaintance cases because we know that these are serial offenders and are likely to strike again...
Over time, the other thing that's evolved of course is the CODIS, the national database run by the FBI, which holds offender samples and that's grown, we have more basically things to check against so it's increased our likelihood of finding people who have been serial criminals or struck again across state lines or in their own neighborhoods.
Q: Why is this still a problem, given federal legislation to address the backlog going as far back as 2000?
A: We talk about this backlog in generic terminology, but it's important to point out that to the Department of Justice and others that there's a kit sitting at a crime lab and waiting to be tested. And as we've been talking about, we know that many of these kits never make it to that stage, they sit in evidence rooms. So there's this education that needs to happen so that when someone, say a lawmaker is looking into the problem within their own state, wants to know if they have an issue with a backlog, they can pick up the phone and call people and have them understand exactly what it is they're asking, we're not just asking, 'Do you have kits that haven't been tested yet?', 'Do you have kits that have never made it to that page?'
That said, there's also the problem of educating everyone from law enforcement, prosecutors, about the value of this evidence. And going back even further a step, we do have this challenge of creating a system where victims feel comfortable coming forward and submitting themselves to these exams in the wake of what's likely the worst trauma of their lives. If I'm a survivor and I'm seeing headlines that say that my kit is going to sit and collect dust somewhere, where's my incentive to come forward? I think that's one of the things that we're seeing shift as more and more states step up to the plate and do what needs to be done to clear their backlogs.
Q: Are you feeling encouraged from recent movement on the issue?
A: RAINN is part of an initiative called the Rape Kit Action Project where we're working with state lawmakers that are working on these issues to help inform it, as well as we're part of a team of national experts advising recently-granted Bureau of Justice Assistance jurisdictions that receive funding through them to address their backlogs because we know that there's no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. So in every jurisdiction, they're going to have their own resource constraints, their own policies, their own laws even about what's required, the timeline they're testing, what are we going [to do] in order to notify victims down the path if a hit occurs when they run a sample in CODIS.
And what's really, really encouraging as I talk to lawmakers across the country and in the federal government, is that people are starting to have these 'a-ha!' moments and realizing that first of all, it's OK to raise your hand and say we may have a problem here and we want to get to the bottom of it. You know, there's no finger-pointing at this point in terms of calling people out for it. Obviously it's not an ideal situation but what's really been amazing even in just the three years that I've been working on this issue here at RAINN is the shift and the desire to be proactive rather than just reactive to the issue.
Q: How much does it cost to test each rape kit?
A: The average is between $400 and $1,200...
It can be [a big hit to states that have a big backlog] but it depends on exactly what they're planning to test out of that kit. You know, sometimes they have to run certain tests that'll limit the cost to the jurisdiction.