What is the Rape Kit “Backlog”?

In sexual assault cases, the victim’s body is part of the crime scene. When a victim reports to police, a hospital, or a rape crisis center, medical staff will conduct a forensic examination to detect any DNA left behind by an assailant. This process can last four to six hours. During the examination, which usually occurs soon after an assault, the victim’s body is photographed, swabbed, and scraped by strangers. Hairs are plucked and blood is drawn. This evidence is placed inside a sexual assault evidence kit, commonly known as a rape kit.

DNA evidence from rape kits can solve and prevent serious crimes.  It can identify unknown assailants and connect known offenders to unsolved cases.  It can confirm a victim’s account of the assault and discredit a suspect’s.  It can connect suspects known and unknown to multiple crime scenes.  It can exonerate the falsely convicted or accused.

But across the country, police departments chronically fail to investigate rape cases, leaving rape kits untested.

Unfortunately, a false narrative has taken hold in the public imagination.  This is the “backlog” myth.

Ohio Public Defender Tim Young, whose office has appealed convictions stemming from Cleveland’s previously untested rape kits, criticized the contradictions in emerging rape kit folklore. As reported by the Plain Dealer:

Young said there is a fantastical narrative being wound publicly that DNA testing didn’t exist to police previously and is now miraculously solving cases. “We’ve had DNA testing since the mid-1990s. They (law enforcement) were dilatory in not using it. It’s a continuation of broken police culture that places the police first, not the victims, the defendants – or justice,” he said.

People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws is a program of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center to monitor law enforcement responses to sexual violence, develop peer advocacy, and organize for criminal justice reform. We urge you to learn more about America’s hidden rape crisis, where it has been exposed, and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support our efforts to make sure law enforcement takes rape seriously.