Rape Kit Backlog Testing Gets $41 Million Boost From Obama Administration

Rape kit testing is important but the initiative threatens to set up yet another front in federal bureaucracy.


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The Obama administration Thursday pledged $41 million in federal funding for states to use to test their backlogs of so-called "rape kits," the medical forensic evidence collected as part of sexual assault examinations. The Manhattan District Attorney's (DA) Office will pitch in nearly as much, giving $38 million to the cause. "When we solve these cases, we get rapists off the streets," said Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement.

In jurisdictions across the country, thousands of rape kits sits untested. Efforts to clear these backlogs have seen promising results, leading to a large number of DNA matches and identification of a number of suspected serial rapists. Detroit has tested nearly 11,000 unprocessed rape kits since 2009, identifying 2,616 total suspects—including 477 suspected serial rapists—and securing 21 convictions. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, "about 30 percent of cases that have developed from testing so far are serial rape suspects," The Seattle Times noted recently. "One of them, Robert Green, assaulted seven women over nearly a decade as evidence went unprocessed. He pleaded guilty last fall and was sentenced to up to 135 years in prison."  

But testing this evidence is expensive, costing some $500-$1,200 per kit. (In some places, assault victims are expected to shoulder the cost of rape-kit testing themselves, though there's been some progress on this front recently). And there are understandable reasons why resource-strapped or tech-skeptical units let some kits go untested, such as cases where the victim didn't want to pursue charges or the attacker confessed. 

"There is no smoking gun that you can point to in any city in America to say this is the one reason why we have this accumulation of kits that have been untested," Doug McGowen, coordinator of the Memphis, Tennessee, Sexual Assault Kit Task Force, told the Times. "It's very hard to quantify the actions of people when the science was new … or when the science wasn't available. We're looking at it through today's lens." 

A National Institute of Justice report released in April found that while technological constraints, understaffed crime labs, high police turnover, and other factors all contributed to the backlog, there was also a clear pattern of "police treating victims in dehumanizing ways." Women reporting rapes were routinely assumed to be sex workers, the study found, and teens assumed to be covering up for behavior that would piss off parents. 

The goal of the new rape-kit testing initiative—a joint project of the Manhattan DA's office and the Bureau of Justice Assistance's (BJA)—is analysis of at least 70,000 untested rape kits. Officials have secured contracts with private forensic labs to conduct testing for around $675 per kit. Grants are going to 32 jurisdictions across 20 states, with individual awards ranging from $97,000 to $2 million.

Biden announced grant recipients Thursdays from the New York City medical examiner's office, joined by Law and Order: Special Victims Unit lead Mariska Hargitay, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.  "There's nothing more consequential than giving a woman back her life," Biden said in explaining its impetus, apparently of the mind that rape victims with unprosecuted assailants are some sort of zombie-Sleeping Beauty hybrids 

Congress approved the funds for the BJA's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) as part of a federal spending bill last fall. The Manhattan funding comes from asset forfeiture funds, derived from settlements with BNP Paribas S.A., HSBC Holdings, and Standard Chartered Bank. 

Biden and the Obama administration have been advocates of "ending the backlog" for a while now, having made stopping sexual violence a centerpiece of their domestic agenda in recent years, particularly where college women are concerned. Promoting anti-assault efforts within the criminal justice system rather than via regulatory fiat is a welcome change from the White House, if nothing else; and rape kit testing does seem promising to prioritize for police departments (and activists) looking to hold sexual predators accountable. 

Of course, the federal government's involvement introduces its own set of concerns. While $41 million is not a lot of money relative to the trillion dollar plus federal budget, the money comes with all sorts of strings attached, including a bevy of reporting requirements and "performance measures" to meet and regular check-ins with the feds. At best, this holds grant recipients accountable. But it also threatens to establish yet another front in federal bureaucracy, with all the grant-grubbing, wasteful administrative costs, disincentives to expediency, and potential for overreach and abuse that might imply.

Federal money has already been flowing to local crime laboratories for clearing rape-kit backlogs, but the new BJA program focuses on kits that haven't yet been submitted for testing. It also "aims to address why (rape kits) continue to remain unsubmitted for testing, and help jurisdictions implement new policies and procedures to prevent this from occurring again," as well as support "the investigative and prosecutorial aspects of sexual assault cases resulting from the testing" and the bolstering of victim's services.

Which brings us to the civil libertarian concerns. The feds don't just want to fund forensic testing, they also aim to support investigations and prosecutions of cases based on these DNA hits, though details of how they'll do so are scant. But anytime federal agents start meddling in local crime cases, it should at least give us pause. This is the same impulse that's brought us SWAT raids on pot dealers and Homeland Security operations against small erotic-massage parlors.

And then there's the DNA issue. When rape kit testing yields DNA evidence, places will check it against the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a national DNA database, where it will then reside as another DNA data point. In Kentucky, for instance, the new grant "will run for two years with 300 kits outsourced monthly and the resulting perpetrator DNA profiles uploaded into CODIS by the State Police Laboratory."

That's a lot of people's DNA being collected, without regard for whether they are even a suspect (i.e., a woman's husband who had sex with her on the same day she was attacked). BJA also wants grant recipients to develop their own "tracking systems" for this DNA evidence. While DNA evidence can be invaluable at catching criminals, it's also incredibly sensitive—and imperfect—information with great potential to be misinterpreted or abused. And federal law enforcement has a history of messing up when it comes to forensic analysis.

State and city legislators have recently been mobilizing to address the issue of rape kit testing in their own ways. As of May, more than 20 states had passed or were considering legislation addressing analysis backlogs.