States fight rape kit backlog

A sexual assault evidence collection kit at St. David's Medical Center in Austin TX.
A sexual assault evidence collection kit at St. David's Medical Center in Austin TX.

States across the country are proposing and enacting legislation to tackle the estimated 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide.

Only three states –Texas, Colorado, and Illinois – have laws in place requiring states to account for the number of untested rape kits in their possession. But another 17 have proposed new legislation aiming to stem the backlog, including requiring crime labs and precincts to keep an inventory and capping the amount of time in which a kit can be tested.

Law enforcement agencies say that the backlog is a result of a shortage of resources, personnel and funding. Testing each kit can cost at least $500 and up to $1,500 and some kits are considered low-priority or unnecessary, for instance in cases where the victim knows his or her assailant.

But evidence over the past decade shows that the smaller the backlog, the greater the number of prosecutions in rape cases.

According to End The Backlog, an advocacy program affiliated with a non-profit founded by Law & Order star Mariska Hargitay, New York City’s arrest rate for rape cases went from 40% to 70% after the state eliminated its 17,00-kit backlog in 2003.

After Detroit tested the first 10% of its backlogged kits, authorities were able to link cases to 46 serial rapists.

More than 11,000 untested kits remain in Detroit, according to End the Backlog. In 2011, the Department of Justice approved funding for case studies in Wayne County, Mich.,, and Houston, Texas, to examine the cause of the backlogs.

The Texas state legislature began spending $11 million to clear its 20,000-kit backlog in September 2013, thanks to a three-year effort by state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. Unlike many other states, there is no statute of limitations on rape cases in Texas.