Small Steps Toward Closing California’s Rape Kit Backlog

Thousands of rape kits sit untested and overlooked at police departments and crime lab storage facilities nationwide. According to a partial estimate by the End the Backlog Initiative, about 9,000 kits remain untested in California alone.

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Across the country, states have opted to take action on the rape kit backlog, be it by mandating authorities to inventory untested kits or enforcing time limits in which authorities must test them. In some states, survivors aren’t even legally entitled to the status of their rape kit. Though federal agencies and lawmakers in Congress have sought to provide funds for testing kits to different states, a national mandate on rape kit testing has yet to move forward.

In California, law enforcement agencies are not required to count, track or test rape kits for a variety of reasons—including officers deeming a case “low priority” and departments prioritizing other costs in their budgets. And as CalMatters reports, efforts to even just log the remaining untested kits in California—a small step toward clearing the state’s backlog and giving survivors across the state a chance to pursue justice after their sexual assault—are facing resistance from local authorities.

“I think the injustice of this situation is obvious but bears some repeating,” Assemblyman David Chiu testified before a Senate committee in June. “When kits are untested, survivors do not get justice.”

Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco, authored AB 41, which would require local law enforcement agencies to log, not test, all future rape kits into a California Department of Justice database. It’s a small step toward the eventual goal of testing all rape kits, but even so, simply tracking new kits has garnered the opposition of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, which argues the reporting requirement would divert limited resources from critical services.

“If agencies report this information, there will be a database about who has untested kits and why they are untested,” said Cory Salzillo, legislative director of the sheriffs’ association. “That doesn’t necessarily translate into convictions.”

Salzillo also challenges the premise that every rape kit should be tested, citing cases where a person who committed a rape admitted to it, both the victim and the perpetrator agree a sexual encounter took place, or if a victim has recanted. But it’s hard to know what percentage of untested kits stem from solved cases in California because law enforcement isn’t required to report the information.

Lazaro still doesn’t know why the sheriff’s department didn’t submit her test for analysis or why her case remained unsolved for so long. She spent her final year of high school terrified of her unknown attacker, who had threatened to kill her and her family if she ever reported the attack. When authorities did send Lazaro’s evidence kit for testing in 2003—seven years later—they didn’t tell her they had found a match. Her case never moved forward.

In August 2015, a USA Today investigation found that 70,000 rape kits sat untested in laboratories around the country. The results showed that it will take not just funding, but better practices by law enforcement, to clear that backlog. “It takes significant resources and political will, getting leaders to engage in this problem and say it’s a priority and want to fix it,” Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, told CalMatters.

Rape is a massively underreported crime—and without criminal evidence, prosecution is not on the table for many survivors. Women who bravely choose to step forward and pursue justice in the wake of rape and sexual assault deserve, at the least, for their cases to be taken seriously.

Meliss Arteaga is an editorial intern at Ms. She studied at California State University Northridge and has a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minor in gender and women studies.
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