Holding Jurisdiction Accountable For the Rape Kit Backlog

By Mariska Hargitay

Every year, thousands of individuals who have been raped take the courageous step of reporting the crime to the police. They submit to an examination of their bodies and have evidence collected in a process that typically takes four to six hours. The evidence is saved in a “Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit” – a rape kit.

DNA evidence is an invaluable investigative tool. When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant, reveal serial offenders, and exonerate the wrongly convicted. Yet too often, the decision is made not to test these kits. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in police and crime lab storage facilities across the country.

Hundreds of thousands of kits, representing survivors who deserve justice and perpetrators who deserve jail time.

The rape kit backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how we regard these crimes in our society. It represents a failure of the criminal justice system to protect survivors and hold perpetrators accountable.

Jurisdictions often cite lack of resources and personnel as the largest barrier to processing more rape kits. We have partnered with allies, including the federal government, to provide funding to take that excuse off the table. Another – rarely acknowledged – cause of the backlog is an unwillingness among many law enforcement agencies to prioritize and dedicate sufficient resources to sexual assault cases. More than with any other crime, members of law enforcement frequently disbelieve or even blame victims of sexual assault.

One only has to skim today’s news to see how true this is.

We can and must do better. That starts with holding our elected leaders and jurisdictions accountable.

At the Joyful Heart Foundation, we seek to shine a light on the rape kit backlog in the United States. The first step toward greater transparency and accountability is identifying the untested kits in law enforcement custody. When the extent of a jurisdiction’s backlog is revealed, real reform can begin.

Ending the rape kit backlog will take a coordinated effort and deep commitment at all levels of our government and in communities across the United States. In the last two years, 21 states passed laws requiring sexual assault kit audits or some type of mandatory submission guidelines. These laws will expand what we know about the true extent of the number of untested rape kits and begin the process toward true reform.

Join us in holding state leaders accountable. Learn what is happening in your state. Contact state legislators to urge them to pass comprehensive legislation to count and track untested kits, test unanalyzed rape kits in storage facilities, investigate and prosecute these cases, re-engage survivors in the process, and address any systemic failures that led to the creation of the problem in the first place.

This is not a time for complacency or further delay. Each untested rape kit represents a missed opportunity to bring justice and healing to a survivor and increased safety to a community.

Survivors deserve better. Survivors deserve justice through rape kit reform.

For background and further information on the rape kit backlog, go to: ENDTHEBACKLOG.org



Mariska Hargitay is the Founder & President of the Joyful Heart Foundation and the Emmy Award-winning star of NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.