Addressing the Rape Kit Backlog
DNA evidence has become a critical factor in achieving justice for survivors of sexual violence, but there are still challenges in the way evidence is collected, stored, tracked, and used to hold perpetrators accountable. The overwhelming backlog of DNA evidence is currently one of the biggest obstacles to prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence.
What is the rape kit backlog?
The backlog of unanalyzed sexual assault forensic exam evidence is often referred to as the DNA backlog or “rape kit backlog.” The source of the backlog is complicated and multi-layered, but there are two main sources.
- Evidence was never sent to the crime lab. In the last decade, cities and states across the country have discovered DNA evidence from thousands of untested rape kits that were collected by law enforcement or during sexual assault forensic exams, but never sent to crime labs for analysis. This is sometimes referred to as the “hidden backlog.” Failure to track kits once they have been collected and to advance them to crime labs for testing has been a major source of this problem. Increased public attention has led to states actively auditing their law enforcement evidence rooms and other relevant spaces.
- Evidence arrived at a crime lab, but was never tested. In some instances, the volume of untested DNA evidence has outpaced the resources to test, process, and profile samples in crime labs. This has led to evidence being stored at crime labs, but remaining untested for prolonged periods of time. With the support of the federal government, the problem of untested kits at crime labs has significantly decreased. However, it remains imperative to ensure that public crime labs have the necessary capacity to keep up with testing demands.
DNA evidence is a critical factor in identifying, prosecuting, and convicting perpetrators, but in some ways, the effectiveness of DNA evidence has been the source of its biggest obstacle. As DNA evidence proved to be a useful tool in both investigation and prosecution of sex crimes, collecting this evidence became standard procedure for law enforcement agencies across the country. Today, all 50 states and the federal government collect DNA from perpetrators convicted of certain crimes. An increasing number of states have expanded their laws to collect DNA from people arrested or accused of certain felonies and, in some cases, certain misdemeanors. In addition, DNA evidence can be collected directly from crimes scenes and during sexual assault forensic exams.
Using DNA to solve crimes of sexual violence
Crime labs analyze DNA samples, such as those collected during sexual assault forensic exams. They are analyzed to determine if the samples contain evidence that can be used to identify the perpetrator and potentially prosecute them for the crime. The crime lab develops DNA profiles that are unique to a specific person. These profiles, which resemble a bar code and contain no personally identifying information, are then added to CODIS, the FBI's national database, which includes DNA collected by local and state law enforcement agencies.
Each time a DNA profile is added to CODIS, it bolsters the strength of the database and increases the chance of catching and prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence and other crimes. CODIS has continued to grow to include DNA from millions of offenders and arrestees; it now includes more than 10 million DNA profiles. The result has been a dramatic increase in the hit rate, or the percentage of cases in which DNA found at the crime scene or in a rape kit is matched to someone in the database.
RAINN’s work on this issue
RAINN spearheaded and continues to lead a successful national campaign to educate lawmakers, the media, and the public about the backlog of unanalyzed DNA casework. Through media outreach, direct conversations with state and federal stakeholders, and testimony before the U.S. Congress, RAINN has raised the profile and visibility of the rape kit backlog. In addition, RAINN is a founding member of the Rape Kit Action Project and serves on its steering committee, working with allied organizations dedicated to advancing rape kit accountability laws at the state level.
RAINN has also led campaigns to pass and renew key federal laws pertaining to DNA evidence and justice for survivors.
- Justice For All Act of 2004
- DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005
- Debbie Smith Act
- Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (SAFER) Act
How can I help?
RAINN’s work in this area is ongoing and evolving, just like the science of DNA technology. But we can’t do it alone.
- Take action to protect and enable federal funding for programs that help test DNA evidence and bring perpetrators to justice. Tweet your Representative, send an email, and tell your social network about the need to end the backlog.
- Donate critical funds to support RAINN’s public policy efforts in advocating for policies and regulations that facilitate justice for survivors of sexual violence.
- Learn more about states’ responses to the backlog and ways to get involved through the Rape Kit Action Project.