Ending the Rape Kit Backlog: What’s the Price of a Survivor’s Peace of Mind?

shutterstock_164310179A nationwide investigation spearheaded by USA Today has found that at least 70,000 rape kits sit untested in laboratories around the country. While Detroit and other cities have made headlines for their determination to clear rape kit backlogs (in Detroit’s case, only after the Department of Justice found its police department guilty of “negative, victim-blaming beliefs” in 2008) this new investigation point outs two major barriers to testing rape kits: lack of established guidelines on when to test a rape kit and lack of money.

Some advocates argue that every rape kit should be tested, but police departments say they don’t have the funds. It costs between $1,000 and $1,500 to test a single rape kit, and officers who are worried about how to allocate funds often push rape kits aside if they think other cases have a stronger need for DNA analysis. However, over the past decade, Congress has given $1.2 billion towards eliminating the rape kit backlog—including $41 million from the federal budget, announced in March—which is “enough to test 1 million rape kits.” But those funds aren’t being distributed correctly.

In 2013, Congress passed the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (SAFER) Act, which requires 75 percent of previously allocated grants (under the Debbie Smith program) to be directly used for untested DNA analysis in rape cases. The USA Today investigation found, however, that the DOJ failed to follow the SAFER Act’s guidelines; they have given out no grants to law enforcement, and a DOJ steering committee has only met once since the SAFER Act passed.

Another key component of the SAFER Act is that it would set national standards and training for rape kit testing; currently, 44 states have no legal standard in place to determine when an officer must test a rape kit, according to the USA Today investigation. Since no further action has been taken by the DOJ since Congress passed the SAFER Act, state legislation is needed to fill the gap and establish when and how departments test and organize rape kits. But very few states have legislation that directly address rape kit backlogs, and the level of success in reducing backlogs also depends on whether departments receive training and proper funding.

One of the biggest takeaways from this investigation is that the cultural stigma surrounding sexual assault is keeping law enforcement from effectively prosecuting cases. Rape kit testing increases the likelihood of prosecution in court, and decreases the chance that a perpetrator may strike again by adding their DNA to a national database. As the USA Today piece shows, testing even years-old rape kits can lead to an arrest. But just as importantly, testing a survivor’s rape kit sends the message that they—and their cases—matter.

While funding for rape kit testing is crucial, the results of the USA Today investigation show that it is equally important that any influx of funds is accompanied with proper training for officers. Victim notification, the process of alerting a survivor about the status of their rape kit, can be either traumatic or cathartic. It’s incredibly invasive for survivors to undergo a forensic exam and can be difficult to report a sexual assault incident to law enforcement. Many law enforcement agencies struggle to engage with survivors in an understanding, compassionate manner, and often belittle and insult the person seeking justice. Testing rape kits shouldn’t be just about the price tag, it should be about bringing peace to sexual assault survivors who are bravely trusting law enforcement with their stories.

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Emma Niles is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz and an editorial intern at Ms. Follow Emma on Twitter @emmalorinda.