How to End an Enormous Backlog of Untested Rape Kits
After years of gathering dust in a Detroit warehouse, thousands of rape kits were finally tested in 2009 and revealed a chilling truth: Of 2,500 DNA hits, 650 turned out to be repeat offenders.
Findings like that raise concerns that there are serial rapists who haven’t been caught because of a backlog of roughly 400,000 untested rape kits sitting in crime labs across the United States, said Julie Smolyansky, an executive producer of The Hunting Ground, an award-winning documentary about campus sexual assault.
“Because of the negligence of our government and our law enforcement, we’ve created victims through repeat perpetrators, who commit crimes over and over again,” Smolyansky told TakePart. Whether the current state of affairs is because of a lack of funding or a lack of follow-through, sexual assault investigations and prosecutions have lagged in many states.
A ray of hope came Thursday when the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved $125 million to go toward testing those rape kits—on top of restoring $20 million that had been cut in the president’s version of the budget. The funding bill needs full approval from Congress.
Increased funding would allow state labs to not only hire more analysts to run the tests, but also employ new technology that would make tests quicker and less expensive—testing a kit currently costs roughly $1,200 in a state crime lab.
The need for that work was spelled out at a first-ever national conference in Chicago last week, where advocates and state officials met to propose ways to expedite rape kit testing in every state and eliminate the backlog altogether.
The daylong event hosting experts from across the U.S. was the brainchild of Smolyansky, who is also the CEO of Lifeway Foods and cofounder of Test400k, a campaign devoted to raising awareness and finding solutions for the surplus of untested rape kits.
“I had talked to all these stakeholders in these siloed conversations, and I always wished that I could bring them together, because they have so much to learn from each other,” Smolyansky told TakePart.
Among the day’s speakers were law enforcement officials, as well as a number of sexual assault survivors.
Natasha Alexenko, a survivor turned activist, told the story of how her rape kit went untested for nine years after she was sexually assaulted in 1993. Although her kit was finally tested in 2003, her attacker was not arrested until 2007, at which point he had committed several additional assaults.
“It is absolutely unacceptable,” Smolyansky said. “They’re playing Russian roulette with our safety every day.”
Smolyansky and Test400K propose that every rape kit in every state be tested within 15 to 30 days. California and Louisiana are already analyzing kits in this time frame thanks to new technology that allows for rapid DNA testing.
They also suggest developing a system that would both track the location and status of rape kits and notify victims of that information.
“When you order something on Amazon, from the time you click ‘purchase’ to the time it gets to your house, you can follow your package along the way,” Smolyansky said. Keeping paper records—in 2016, no less—is unacceptable, she added.
In Michigan, officials teamed up with UPS last year to create a tracking system for rape kits. Once a rape kit examination is conducted, the kit is assigned a unique bar code that is scanned into a tracking system, benefiting both investigators and victims in sexual assault cases.
Smolyansky noted that the lengthy and complicated process of achieving justice in a sexual assault case is among the reasons it is a severely underreported crime. But, if Tuesday’s event was any indication, there is hope for survivors.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an uptick in reporting assault, because survivors are much more empowered today and organizations are more empowered to speak up,” she said.