Advocates worry rape kit backlog will discourage victims, enable offenders

Arizona has a backlog of 6,424 sexual assault evidence kits that have been collected but not tested, a trend that worries advocates. (Photo by Victoria Janicke/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A state task force said Arizona has thousands more untested rape kits than originally thought, a problem that advocates fear could undermine efforts to get victims to come forward while giving serial offenders a “free pass.”

The Arizona Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit Task Force last month reported a backlog of 6,424 untested sexual assault evidence kits in law enforcement agencies throughout Arizona, well over original estimates that there would be about 4,000.

Sexual-assault kits, commonly known as rape kits, are used to collect evidence from victims in rape cases through a lengthy, invasive medical exam. The process can be four to six hours long and includes gathering DNA swabs, taking photographs and getting intimate details of the victim’s assault and sexual history, according to the group End the Backlog.

“One of the biggest things we want to make sure people understand is that survivors in these cases have done everything we as a society expect them to do,” said Ilse Knecht, director of advocacy and policy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, which runs End the Backlog. “Like preserve evidence – they don’t take a shower, which is the first thing they want to do.

“They have evidence collected in an exam that is invasive and uncomfortable and they expect the evidence to be used,” Knecht said of the victims.

Arizona’s untested kits, more than 4,000 of which the task force said are in Maricopa County alone, is part of backlog of more than 175,000 untested rape kits in the 38 states that keep records on the problem, according to End the Backlog.

Advocates blame the backlog on a lack of funding, as well as policies that vary from case to case and police department to police department.

“Right now it is completely up to the discretion of law enforcement,” Knecht said. “Usually it’s a detective, who would determine based on the case and through research and testing programs that have been going on. That discretion will unfortunately lead to kits that should’ve been sent to the lab but never were.”

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State Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, was on the task force and agreed with its recommendation that legislation is needed to create proper protocol for testing all kits and creating a tracking system.

State and federal officials have been trying to chip away at the problem, with the U.S. Department of Justice last month giving the Phoenix Police Department a $1.5 million grant and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office a $1.2 million grant to test kits.

The task force said that funding, combined with previous, should be enough to test many of the kits, but would still leave as many as 2,000 statewide untested with more coming in routinely. Knecht said an estimated one U.S. woman in six will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

Gov. Doug Ducey, who appointed the task force in January, said in a statement from his office that he plans to move forward on its report and would call on all local jurisdictions to adopt a test-all policy, as recommended by the task force.

Both Knecht and Hobbs said more sexual assault survivors would come forward if they felt the criminal justice system took them seriously, but distrust of the system deters even more survivors from reporting sexual assault, which is already significantly underreported.

“There’s a lot more that needs to be done in the bigger picture,” Hobbs said. “For those victims to come forward and report sexual assault, that takes a lot of courage.”

Reasons for not reporting an assault are complex and vary, but often involve fear of being blamed or judged, according to advocates.

“I think that comes from a history of the criminal justice process placing the character of the victim in question,” said Jessye Johnson, an official with the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence who was also on the state task force. “We’ve seen some shift in that in terms of rape shield laws.

“There’s a lot of shame and shock and disbelief and a range of emotions rape victims and survivors experience when they’re assaulted,” Johnson said.

Knecht said it’s unacceptable that there is a tracking system in place for packages but not for evidence of sexual assault, particularly when testing every single kit could help identify a serial offender before more crimes are committed. Not doing so, she said, is “like giving them a free pass to continue.”

“We need a tracking system in place so from here on out rape kits can be accounted for,” Knecht said.