Ending the Rape Kit Backlog

Given the advances of modern science, you would think it should not be hard to catch most rapists and prevent the misidentification of most people wrongly accused of sex offenses. And yet, until just recently, the political will to do those things has been lacking, and so hundreds of thousands of sex offenses have gone unsolved (or incorrectly solved). Hopefully, that will soon change: The Obama administration just pledged millions of dollars in federal funding for the testing of backlogged “rape kits” to try to change this, and it appears that Congress will approve the funds.

Let me explain. Most rapists leave behind a unique identifier, in the form of their DNA. We’ve been able to test DNA and connect it to a unique individual since the mid-1980’s. And most rapists are repeat offenders, whose DNA is in the law enforcement tracking systems. The FBI’s criminal forensic database, called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, has been around since the mid-1990s. Finally, for decades we have had a set protocol for collecting sex offenders’ DNA. When a victim goes to the hospital complaining of having been sexually assaulted, medical professionals complete what are known as “rape kits” to extract and store the offender’s DNA from under the victim’s nails and from any hair, semen, saliva, etc., left behind during the offense. When you put all that together, there has been a means in place for decades for catching and prosecuting most offenders in stranger-based sex offenses. And for all of the wrongfully convicted sex offenders, testing the DNA could exonerate them, while identifying the true perpetrators and stopping the real offenders from finding more victims.

And yet, there is currently an estimated backlog of 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide, according to the National Institute of Justice. That means: crimes unsolved, perpetrators still free, and sometimes, the wrong person incarcerated for the crime. For each crime, there is a victim waiting for justice and other potential victims who would benefit from getting the rapist off the street. For instance, in Detroit, law enforcement found over 11,000 untested rape kits collecting dust. After testing only the first 2000 of them, authorities identified 127 serial rapists and made 473 DNA matches.

One of the organizations behind the push for the new rape kit test funding, ENDTHEBACKLOG.ORG, points to a quintessential example from Memphis, a city with more than 12,000 backlogged rape kits. The Memphis story is similar to other stories around the country: a young woman there was raped in 2003. Her rape kit went untested for nine years. When authorities finally reopened her case in 2012 and tested the rape kit, the DNA inside was linked to a neighborhood serial rapist. That man had committed at least six more reported rapes, including the rape of a 12-year-old girl, while the woman’s rape kit sat untested. Isn’t that beyond infuriating? And, on the flip side, DNA testing of rape kits can not only help catch the true offender, in hundreds of cases, it has proven that the wrong man has been convicted of the rape.

So, here’s hoping that the momentum keeps pushing forward and that communities around the country start using the new funding to test their backlogged rape kits. This seems like one of those situations where, although the solution might be expensive, it’s far too expensive in human costs not to.



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