By Rich Williams
Across the nation, state and local governments are grappling with the discovery of untested sexual assault evidence collection kits—commonly called “rape kits”—in police precincts and storage facilities. Rape kits are a series of exams performed on a person who reports being sexually assaulted.
Each untested sexual assault kit may contain DNA evidence that has the potential to identify a criminal and provide closure for victims if tested and checked against the national law enforcement DNA database system (CODIS). National estimates for untested kits range between 100,000 to 400,000, but the exact number is unknown.
While the reason kits go untested varies, researchers studying untested kits in Detroit have identified several common causes for why their kits went untested.
These causes included a lack of police protocols for deciding whether evidence should be tested, insufficient staffing to conduct DNA testing, frequent turnover in law enforcement’s leadership, poor communication with victims and lack of coordination among state legal and medical services.
To find solutions and prevent the future accumulation of rape kits, state lawmakers are working with law enforcement agencies, judicial officials, victim’s advocates, medical personnel and lab analysts.
Identifying and Preventing Untested Evidence
In 2014, in response to news reports that Memphis police potentially possessed thousands of untested sexual assault kits, Tennessee lawmakers enacted SB 1426, which requires law enforcement agencies in the state to identify their inventory of untested sexual assault kits. In September 2014, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation issued a report that says law enforcement agencies across the state have a total of 9,062 untested kits.
Similar laws have been enacted in Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Texas and Virginia. When Colorado enacted HB 13-1020 in 2013, the state also appropriated $6 million to test evidence and required the state’s Department of Public Safety to include additional costs for testing more sexual assault evidence in their budget requests.
In 2009, officials identified more than 11,300 untested sexual assault kits at a Detroit police storage facility, with some being collected as long as 25 years ago. Efforts to test the kits began in 2010, and so far a little more than 2,000 kits have been tested resulting in 545 CODIS hits that have identified 100 serial rapists, including 10 convicted rapists, who went on to commit similar crimes in 23 other states. To test the remaining 8,000 kits, Michigan lawmakers appropriated $4 million (HB 4112) in July 2013. The testing of all kits discovered in 2009 is expected to be completed by May 2015.
This year in Michigan, lawmakers enacted HB 5445, setting time standards for the submission and testing of sexual assault evidence. Another law, HB 5313, directs the state attorney general to prepare for any litigation that results from testing the previously discovered untested kits.
National Perspective and NCSL Resources
At least 28 states have enacted laws to address sexual assault evidence issues. These measures create training standards for examiners, set sample submission standards for law enforcement and lab personnel and require communication with victims about the status of their case.
To learn more about state efforts to address untested sexual assault evidence, register for our free webinar, Untested Sexual Assault Evidence: The Legislative Response on Sept. 26. You will hear from: California Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, who sponsored AB 1517, a bill that sets standards for submitting and testing sexual assault evidence; and Dr. Rebecca Campbell, a national expert on untested sexual assault evidence. Also, please visit NCSL’s new forensic science laws database to learn more about state forensic science laws.
Rich Williams is a policy specialist in NCSL's Criminal Justice program.