About the Backlog
DNA evidence often plays a key role in successful prosecutions, particularly in cases of sexual assault. Sexual assault victims who report the crime to law enforcement are usually asked to submit to a physical exam that includes collecting DNA evidence. That evidence is preserved in a sexual assault kit (also called a “rape kit”), and entered into police evidence. Kits that remain untested in police or laboratory facilities are considered part of the sexual assault kit backlog.
The problem of untested rape kits has been evident for more than a decade. In 1999, New York City reported having 17,000 untested rape kits. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated a backlog of hundreds of thousands of untested DNA samples in state or local crime labs and evidence warehouses throughout the United States. That year, President Bush proposed $232.6 million in funding for the Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology initiative. Congress authorized the appropriation—through the Justice for All Act—of $151 million each year for fiscal years 2005–2009 for state and local governments to conduct analyses of backlogged DNA samples collected from victims and criminal offenders.
The legislation (reauthorized in 2008), led to significant increases in testing; however, many thousands of kits remain untested every year. In 2009, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a year-end backlog of more than 100,000 kits. Although the numbers continue to fluctuate, the problem persists.
Reasons for the backlog vary. In many jurisdictions, there are no laws requiring the testing of sexual assault kits. Other jurisdictions lack the necessary resources to perform DNA testing. In some instances, police or prosecutors decide not to submit specific kits for testing. As DNA evidence is collected in more criminal cases, the volume of DNA testing has increased dramatically, making it difficult for laboratories to keep up with the demand. Regardless of the reasons for the backlog, untested rape kits leave crimes unsolved, offenders free, and victims without justice.
As communities work toward reducing sexual assault kit backlogs, they should sensitively support victims and knowledgeably address their rights and needs. The National Center for Victims of Crime’s DNA Resource Center — in partnership with the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice — is available to provide training, technical assistance, and resources to ensure victim-centered responses to the problem of backlogged and untested sexual assault kits.
To request technical assistance, please contact Ilse Knecht, Deputy Director of Public Policy, at IKnecht@ncvc.org or 646-620-5270.