Ending Arizona’s Rape Kit Backlog Problem

By: Rebecca Reiben

Every one hundred and nine seconds a person experiences sexual assault.[1] When a victim reports the assault, the victim can elect to have a physician perform an invasive examination, which involves the victim explaining intimate details of the assault, taking photographs of the victim’s body, taking DNA swabs for evidence left by the attacker.[2] This evidence is preserved in a rape kit,[3] and then if the DNA evidence is tested, it can be used to not only solve the current crime, but prevent future crime. Historically “rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant, link crimes together, [] identify serial offenders . . . confirm the presence of a known suspect [or affirm] the survivors account of the attack.”[4] Rape kits are tested at the discretion of the police department, but all rape kits should be tested because it allows a victim to feel as though their case matters and holds perpetrators accountable.[5]

It is estimated that jurisdictions across the United States have a rape kit backlog of more than 175,000 that are sitting in police department and crime storage facilities across the county.[6] In Arizona specifically, the Arizona Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit Task Force reported a backlog of 6,424 untested rape kits in Arizona, 4,000 of which are in Maricopa County.[7] This backlog is blamed on a lack of funding and varying policies between law enforcement agencies.[8]

These agencies have complete discretion in which kits to test. The detective determine whether to send the kit to the lab on a case-by-case basis leading to a backlog of kits that should have been tested but were not.[9] The Justice Department recently passed the new Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), which provides “local communities with resources to support multidisciplinary community response teams engaged in comprehensive reform of the jurisdiction’s approach to sexual assault cases.”[10] Funding should be used to test kits, investigate and prosecute cases connected with those kits, and re-engagement of the sexual assault victim.[11]

Enacting legislation is an important step in ending the rape kit backlog and providing justice for survivors who were brave enough to come forward. In January 2016, Governor Doug Ducey passed an executive order establishing the Arizona Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit Task Force.[12] The task force was tasked with developing statewide testing protocols for sexual assault evidence, identify untested kits, implementing evidence tracking systems, recommending legislation to ensure testing, and provide recommendations for continued funding.[13] The Governor provided $500,000 in funding to begin the testing efforts.[14] However, according to the task force, this only covers about 625 rape kits.[15]

Additionally, Maricopa County received $2.7million in federal grants to test backlogged sexual assault kits.[16] The funds will be used for the analysis of backlogged kits as well as for the investigation and prosecution of these untested kits in hopes of reducing unsolved sexual assault cases in Maricopa County.[17] The County is using the funding to implement a new ‘test all’ policy that allows every sex-crime evidence kit to be tested.[18] Several states across the country have been successful in implementing similar policies. For example, Detroit is currently in the process of testing its 11,341 of backlogged kits.[19] As of September 2016, Detroit tested about 10,000 of its untested kits, “resulting in 2,616 DNA matches and the identification of 770 potential serial rapists,” and obtained about sixty convictions.[20] These same kits linked to crimes committed in 40 states.[21]

The recommendations from the Task Force for handling Arizona’s rape kit backlog were due on October 1, 2016. Based on their findings, the funding allocated is enough to test many of the rape kits, but it is expected to have as many as 2,000 left statewide.[22] This number is expected to continue to grow with new reported cases. By allowing rape kits to go untested, the state is allowing perpetrators, and potential serial perpetrators, to walk the street without being held accountable for their criminal actions. We, as Arizona citizens, must continue to hold our legislature accountable to victims of this state. Citizen safety should be a top priority.

 

[1] About Sexual Assualt, Rainn, http://www.endthebacklog.org/backlog/what-rape-kit-backlog (last visited Nov. 11, 2016).

[2] What is the Rape Kit Backlog? End the Backlog, http://www.endthebacklog.org/backlog/what-rape-kit-backlog (last visited Nov. 11, 2016). See also, Aida Chavez, Advocates: Rape-Kit Backlog Will Discourage Victims, Enable Offenders, The Arizona Republic (Oct. 28, 2016) http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix-contributor/2016/10/28/advocates-rape-kit-backlog-discourage-victims-enable-offenders/92895466/.

[3]A rape kit is “a container that includes a checklist, materials, and instructions, along with envelops and containers to package any specimens collected during the exam.” What is a Rape Kit? Rainn, https://www.rainn.org/articles/rape-kit (last visited Nov. 12, 2016).

[4] Why Testing Rape Kits Matters, End the Backlog, http://www.endthebacklog.org/backlog/why-testing-matters (Last visited 11, Nov. 2016).

[5] Id.

[6] Chavez, supra note 2. See also What Rape Kit Backlog?, supra note 2.

[7] Chavez, supra note 2.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. (quoting Ilse Knect, Director of Advocacy and Policy at the Joyful Heart Foundation).

[10] Melissa Schwartz, Joyful Heart Foundation Applauds $38 Million Awarded to Support Comprehensive Rape Kit Reform, End the Backlog (Sept. 26, 2016) http://www.endthebacklog.org/blog/joyful-heart-foundation-applauds-38-million-awarded-support-comprehensive-rape-kit-reform.

[11] Id.

[12] Ariz. Admin. Reg. 85 (Jan. 15, 2016), http://azgovernor.gov/sites/default/files/eo2016-02_sexual_assault_kits.pdf.

[13] Id.

[14] Griselda Nevarez, Doug Ducey Calls Rape Kit Task Force’s Recommendations a ‘Step in the Right Direction,Phoenix New Times (Oct. 18, 2016) http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/doug-ducey-calls-rape-kit-task-forces-recommendations-a-step-in-the-right-direction-8747262.

[15] Id.

[16] Marissa R. Roper, Phoenix Police, Maricopa County Attorney to use $2.7M in Grants to Help Test Rape Kits, The Arizona Republic (Oct. 4, 2016) http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix/2016/10/04/phoenix-police-maricopa-county-attorney-grants-test-rape-kits/91549272/.

[17] Id.

[18] Id (quoting Mary Roberts, Phoenix Police Assistant Chief).

[19] Detroit, End the Backlog, http://www.endthebacklog.org/detroit (last visited Nov. 12, 2016).

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Chavez, supra note 2.