Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action, a report by the White House Council on Women and Girls issued in January 2014, revealed that nearly one in five US women have experienced rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Furthermore, the report indicated that, although the testing of rape kits—forensic exams that collect evidence of rape or sexual assault, including the perpetrator’s DNA—can be “vital for the prosecution of cases,” a backlog of untested rape kits may factor into low rape prosecution rates.
The White House report cited a 2011 study of more than 2,000 law enforcement agencies, which found that 44 percent of the agencies did not send forensic evidence to a laboratory because the suspect had not been identified; another 15 percent said they did not submit the evidence because the prosecutor did not request it; and 11 percent cited the lab’s inability to produce timely results. The White House report described a DNA Backlog Reduction Program, administered through the National Institute of Justice, which would fund 120 state and local crime labs to conduct DNA testing.
Writing for Truthout, Emily Homrok reported that a five-month study conducted by CBS News in 2009 had found a minimum of at least 20,000 unprocessed rape kits across the US. Homrok’s article detailed Jessica Ripley’s case. In February 2012, Ripley was raped in a parking garage in Salt Lake City, Utah. When the responding officer interviewed Ripley, he alluded several times to the fact that she was intoxicated and should not have been somewhere the officer “would never allow his daughter to go.” At the hospital, a rape kit was used and police were contacted—yet despite evidence produced by the kit, no investigative advances have been made in Ripley’s case. Ripley’s kit never even made it to the lab for testing; it was one of 788 that got destroyed or was left untouched by the Salt Lake City Police Department over an eight-year period, Homrok wrote. Rape tests are often not taken seriously by police officers because the victims are seen as “dumb drunk girls.”
In March 2014, the White House announced that its fiscal year 2015 budget would provide thirty-five million dollars for a new grant program to “inventory and test rape kits, develop ‘cold case’ units to pursue new investigative leads, and support victims throughout the process.” As Nora Caplan-Bricker reported for the New Republic, the Department of Justice estimated that as many as 400,000 rape kits were currently going unexamined because local authorities could not afford to analyze them. Testing a rape kit costs between $500 and $1,500, so, Caplan-Bricker wrote, “the administration’s proposed investment is only enough to make a moderate-sized dent in the issue.”
Less than a year later, in January 2015, the BBC’s Taylor Kate Brown reported significant progress in processing the backlog of untested rape kits. Using funds from a National Institute of Justice grant, Detroit police had tested some 2,000 unprocessed rape kits and were in the process of testing another 8,000. In Cleveland, Brown reported, police had submitted all of its 4,300 backlogged kits for testing. Cleveland police opened more than 1,800 investigations, and local prosecutors had “indicted 231 people, a third of whom had at least one previous rape conviction.” As Brown wrote, “Amid a reinvigorated call to test the estimated hundreds of thousands of rape kits in police storage across America, other US cities are also seeing dramatic results—a high number of previously unidentified serial rapists and dozens of unsolved cases going to prosecution.”
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), approximately 68 percent of sexual assault cases go unreported.
Emily Homrok, “How Often Do Rape Kits Go Unprocessed?,” Truthout, October 3, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26561-how-often-do-rape-kits-go-unprocessed.
Nora Caplan-Bricker, “The Backlog of 400,000 Unprocessed Rape Kits Is A Disgrace,” New Republic, March 9, 2014, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116945/rape-kits-backlog-joe-biden-announces-35-million-reopen-cases.
Taylor Kate Brown, “New Hope for Rape Kit Testing Advocates,” BBC, January 5, 2015,http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30554719.
Student Researchers: Jessika Bales (Indian River State College) and Nathan Bowman (College of Marin)
Faculty Evaluators: Jared Kinggard (Indian River State College) and Susan Rahman (College of Marin)