Last week on the blog, we began our in-depth look at the sexual assault kit backlog that is plaguing the nation. We discussed what the backlog is, why it exists, additional challenges, and a study that was initiated to improve the investigation process for victims. This week, we wanted to examine what’s being done to combat the problem and bring offenders to justice.
Written by: Tara Luther, Promega Corporation
What’s being done to reduce the backlog on a Federal level?
In March of 2015, Vice President Biden spoke of the Administration’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, which provided $41 million in 2015 to aid in the acceleration of rape kit testing and reducing the backlog. The 2016 budget proposed an additional $41 million to continue the Initiative and $20 million for research on how to effectively reduce the backlog and prevent future backlogs. Later that year, the New York District Attorney’s Office announced their grant program which contributed an additional $38 million to reducing the backlog.
On a state level, programs have varied. Currently, 23 states have enacted statewide reform, 12 have proposed statewide reform, and the remaining 15 have not enacted any state reform.
Washington State, for instance, may have had as many as 6,000 untested rape kits in 2015 and has passed legislation requiring all kits to be submitted for testing within 30 days. The passing of this bill required more funding than what the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative has provided. Washington State proposed bill HB 2530 which would tax the adult-entertainment industry by requiring businesses to collect a $4 fee (in addition to other cover charges) from patrons upon entering. According to the bill, “sexually orientated businesses” pull in more than $25 million annually, so the $4 fee could add up quickly. The bill would also establish a statewide tracking system with mandatory participation.
In Oklahoma, a combination of improved funding, increased staffing, and better equipment has allowed them to clear out a backlog of 1,300 cases.
In December of 2015, an audit revealed at least 5,406 untested rape kits in New Mexico. In early 2016, New Mexico’s House of Representatives and Senate both proposed legislation to increase funding, with the House of Representatives requesting $1.2 million for processing rape kits, and the Senate seeking $2.3 million to hire three more forensic scientists and expand a laboratory.
In California, where a partial count in 2015 revealed at least 6,125 kits, a state law effective as of January 1st requires law enforcement agencies to send all kits to the crime lab within 20 days of being booked into evidence, and ensure that forensic evidence collected from the victim at a medical facility is transferred to the crime lab within 5 days. The law then requires the crime lab to process the evidence, create DNA profiles (where applicable), and upload these profiles into national databases within 120 days of receiving the evidence.
In March of 2016, Idaho Governor Butch Otter signed legislation requiring kits approved for testing to be submitted by law enforcement to a crime lab within 30 days, and then tested by the lab within 90 days. The bill also requires the Idaho state police to submit a report to the Legislature each year to include the number of kits collected and the number remaining untested. While the bill doesn’t require all kits to be submitted for testing, a county prosecutor must sign off on the decision not to test.
Some states have decided to outsource their testing. Once such state is Oregon, where Portland police have sent almost 2,800 sexual assault kits to Sorenson Forensics for testing. Other states have come up with unique ways to tackle the backlog. Wayne County, Michigan, for example has partnered with UPS to design a tracking system for rape kits to document their progress through the chain of custody.
Can procedures for processing rape kits be improved?
Detroit, Michigan is just one city in the United States that had a large number of untested sexual assault kits. A report titled The Detroit Sexual Assault Kit (SAK) Action Response Project (ARP) was published in November of 2015 which detailed findings from a multidisciplinary action research project created to solving the problem. The project involved members from law enforcement, prosecution, forensic sciences, forensic nursing, victim advocacy, and researchers.
Among the areas investigated, the team wondered whether or not all sexual assault kits should be tested. Was it useful to test a kit if the assailant is already known to the victim? What if the case was beyond the statute of limitations?
In order to answer these questions, the team tested 1,595 kits and randomly placed them into four testing groups. The first was group tested those kits where the offender was a stranger, the second group tested kits where the offender was known, the third tested kits that were presumed to be beyond the statute of limitations, and the fourth group was created to determine whether or not the selective degradation testing method could offer faster, less expensive testing options, while still maintaining the same level of accuracy. All testing groups were judged on their rates of CODIS entries (whether or not the kit contained a DNA eligible profile for CODIS), CODIS hits (a DNA match to a profile in CODIS), and serial sexual assault hits (a DNA match across multiple sexual assault kits).
Of the 1,595 kits tested, 785 (45%) yielded CODIS eligible profiles, 455 (28.5%) lead to CODIS hits, and 127 (8%) of the kits displayed serial sexual assault hits. Upon analyzing the results, the team discovered that there was no significant difference in CODIS hits in cases where the perpetrator is known versus a stranger. Similarly, rates did not significantly differ by statute of limitations status.
Regarding the fourth testing group (using the selective degradation testing method vs traditional testing), the team reported that there was no significant difference between the two testing methods in regards to CODIS entry rates. While material costs were similar between the two testing methods, the selective degradation method saved staff 1.1 hours of time per kit processed, which could substantially reduce personnel costs.
Visit End the Backlog’s webpage for more information on the sexual assault kit backlog and to see what’s being done to reduce the backlog in your state.
Be sure to attend this year’s ISHI Panel Discussion titled “EVERY 107 SECONDS ANOTHER AMERICAN IS SEXUALLY ASSAULTED”: WE HAVE AN OBLIGATION. This year’s panelists include Norman Gahn (Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office – retired), representative from Michigan State Police, and Cecelia Crouse (Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office).
The panel discussion will summarize the response of law enforcement, forensic laboratories and victim advocates on universal issues including conducting a census of property evidence vaults to determine the scale of the problem, identifying causal factors why sexual assault kits are not submitted for testing, development of a process whereby every sexual assault kit is tested, ensuring open communication with the victim and involving the agents of the court for due process.
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