Ending the Backlog | Vol. 3 / No. 2.5

Sexual assault kit | Photo: Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs
Sexual assault kit | Photo: Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs

In today’s #FeministFriday post, Elle talks about the backlogs of so-called “rape kits,” intended to bring rapists to justice, but which so often go ignored. This post does contain discussion of sexual assault, but mostly just about the good people trying to clear the backlogs and bring rapists to justice. Read on.


There are few things in this world that I find more depressing than the rape kit backlog that exists in police departments across America. For those of you who don’t look into things that make your head go all swimmy in horror, when a woman or man reports a rape, they will usually undergo a rape kit exam. This exam can politely be referred to as “invasive and exhaustive,” and takes up to six hours to complete. That’s six hours after the victim has already undergone being raped and reporting it to the police. Then, if the rape victim is very lucky (and isn’t that a terrible phrase) the police will actually perform testing with the rape kit, and ideally, catch a rapist. However, in a number of cases that actually hurt my head and my heart to think about, that second part doesn’t happen. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of rape kits are not tested. Terrifyingly, we don’t know the actual number of untested rape kits, as there are few local and no federal, systems for tracking such things.

For those of us who grew up watching Law and Order: SVU, this seems impossible. A rape investigation, however complicated, instantly results in a tested rape kit, DNA evidence, and Ice-T and Richard Belzer exchanging quips. Testing the rape kit is the logical, inevitable result of collecting the rape kit. Duh.

Perhaps aware of their own role in this expectation, SVU actually did an episode regarding the rape kit backlog, including the (very likely) possibilities that the kits in the backlog have been lost, damaged, or destroyed. The episode came in 2010, which (thankfully, in this case) was seven years after SVU’s home turf of New York City cleared up their 17,000 backlogged rape kits, resulting in 2,000 DNA matches and 200 arrests.

(It’s also worth noting that the site where I’m finding a lot of this information, ENDTHEBACKLOG, is a program from the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization meant to help sexual assault victims created by Detective Olivia Benson herself, Mariska Hargitay. Sometimes you take your work home with you. Sometimes you take your work home with you and then you start a foundation to bring national attention to the backlog of rape kits.)

The testing of the kits in NYC came with a hefty price tag: $12 million. This type of cost is often touted as the reason rape kits are not tested, though of course there are also some “hidden” reasons for not testing kits, such as disbelieving rape victims, thinking testing is only necessary in “stranger danger” rapes, and police departments not prioritizing rape investigations. But there is an unavoidable monetary cost to testing the kits, and many departments are unwilling, or unable, to shoulder that cost.

In one city, that means that a group of seriously badass women have stepped forward to gather the money necessary to process the rape kits. Detroit had a 30-year backlog of rape kits, (over 11,000) and basically no money to test them. (According to Eugene Mirman, Detroit is in bad enough financial straits that it is being gentrified by bears. That’s pretty bad.) The cost to test each kit was about $1500, which meant it would take about $17 million to test all of the backlogged kits. The head prosecutor for Detroit, Kym Worthy, got federal grants and bargained down the price of the kit, until she was able to get roughly 10,000 kits tested. That left 1,341 kits untested. And for once, “turn to the private sector” was actually the right answer.

Joanna Cline, an executive for Fathead, heard about the kits, and messaged some business associates. Soon they had started an organization called Enough SAID (standing for Sexual Assault in Detroit). The group raised millions, and the marketing firm Brogan and Partners (which Jezebel describes as “lady led”) offered part pro bono marketing help, all with the aim of raising over half a million more by next year.

All of this lady-powered fundraising has had some serious effects. According to Jezebel,

In the wake of all of this team work, Worthy says her office has identified 652 people suspected of being “serial sexual assault offenders and had secured 27 convictions.” 182 cases are currently under investigation and 1,598 more are awaiting a chance to be investigated.

Read that again. 652 serial sexual assault offenders. This backlog represented the work of 652 serial sexual offenders. 652 people who assaulted multiple people and got away with it. In some states, those 652 sex offenders could have continued to get away with it. For reasons that are beyond my understanding, in most states rape and sexual assault on non-minors have statutes of limitations ranging from 15 years to just 1 year.  I have spent longer writing certain conference papers than some of the statutes of limitations for  misdemeanor sexual assault. Luckily in Michigan, (if I’m reading things correctly) finding DNA evidence  means that an indictment may be brought against the individual at any point after the offense was committed (though the indictment must be brought within 10 years of the DNA being identified). Better late than never, I suppose.

Kym Worthy and the women of Detroit have accomplished something amazing, but there’s a lot more to be done. Detroit still has kits that need to be processed, as do multiple cities in the United States. Some states, such as my own home of Wyoming, don’t even have a specific number for their backlog, and also don’t have any state-based reformations for how quickly rape kits should be processed. If you want to help, you can donate to the Enough SAID campaign or to the efforts of ENDTHEBACKLOG. You can also write to your local and federal politicians to urge them to develop policies mandating the testing of rape kits.

Rape is a heinous crime, and the victims that step forward are bravely undergoing invasive procedures in order to try and see that their rapists face justice. These victims shouldn’t have to rely on the equivalent of a bake sale to ensure that their rapist sees prison time, but until we have federal reforms, that may be the best we can do.


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not campaigning for reforms to how we handle sexual assault, she studies gender in popular culture.