Pure Genius

New online registry would tackle DNA evidence in rape kit backlog

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A bill before the House of Representatives would use simple technology to update an antiquated system, allowing victims and detectives to track the progress of rape cases like FedEx might track a package.

Something has gone terribly wrong with our system of processing rape cases. According to Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), there are so many rape kits sitting in crime labs and police evidence storage facilities (some even kept in desk drawers) that states don’t even know the backlog they’re facing. A new bill before the House of Representatives would use simple technology to update an antiquated system, which would eliminate the DNA backlog of evidence collected and set a new standard for processing these cases.

I recently talked to Berkowitz. He said the new registry that would be created with the SAFER (Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry) Act would allow victims and detectives to follow the progress of individual cases--not unlike FedEx tracks packages. Excerpts of our conversation are below.

  • Click here for a Q&A with SAFER Act supporter and actress KaDee Strickland, who stars in ABC’s Private Practice, on which she portrayed a rape survivor.
  • And click here for a Q&A with wrestler and RAINN online hotline volunteer and wrestler Mick Foley.

Let’s start off with some background on this rape kit backlog.

Nationally over the years, local law enforcement had no reason to test rape cases when they were collected because years ago there was no FBI database of criminals. So the only point of testing would be to see if it matched a suspect at hand.

So it got to the point where hundreds of thousands of kits had built up, and the states said there’s no way we’ll be able to get through this.

But things are different with the FBI’s CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). Some states are finding a 50 percent cold hit rate when they run [rape kit DNA] through CODIS. So it dramatically increases the odds you’ll be able to arrest the offender.

In 2004, Congress stepped in and passed the Debbie Smith Act, which provided funding to states to start working through backlogged DNA samples from victims and offenders. It has been really effective in many respects. It led to a great reduction in backlogged kits and aided in the identification of thousands of suspects nationally.

The other half of the problem is the hidden backlog. Under the Justice Department’s definition, it only counts as a backlogged case if it’s sitting in a crime lab awaiting testing. However, we’re finding that there’s a huge number of kits that were never sent to the lab. So suddenly we have a whole new backlog and no one has any idea how big that backlog is. The cities like Los Angeles, Detroit and Dallas that have made an effort to research it have found just a huge backlog.

Where are those kits now?

Usually police evidence storage facilities. In some places they’re well maintained in freezers and refrigerators, in some cases they’re sitting in desk drawers. They have challenges keeping up with current cases, so it’s difficult with their resources to go back.

However, we more and more see that rapists are serial criminals, so when they go back and test these, they’re finding patterns and people committing multiple rapes over the years. So there’s a lot of value in aggressively going after theses cases because if you can get them off the street you’re preventing rapes in the future.

So what is RAINN doing to help get through this backlog?

We’re working on the SAFER Act, which will have the Justice Department create a national registry that will create publicly available information about backlogged information. It’ll encourage local law enforcement to do an initial audit on what cases are there. It won’t contain any personally identifying information, but It’ll contain information like the date of collection of the kit, the status of testing and when the statute of limitation for that case will expire, so we know how to prioritize testing.

We’ve worked closely with law enforcement agencies so it doesn’t increase the burden for them. It requires some work for the audit, but after that it’s pretty straightforward.

There are three ways it has a great effect on the public and policymakers:

  1. Transparency—this would be a publicly available website, so the public and media could search cities, compare cities, see how quickly each city and state is processing the rape kits, where in the pipeline are there big hurdles;
  2. Efficiency—right now the Justice Department gives out a lot of grants under the Debbie Smith Act to test DNA evidence, but they’re forced to do it without full data, so this would provide more;
  3. Empowerment to the victim--each victim will be given a unique identifier number so she or he can search the status of her/his own case. It’ll give them the tools needed so they know when to follow up with the detective. One thing we hear from a lot of survivors is that dealing with the detective and knowing how much to push is really stressful. You don’t want to sit back and not reach out, but you also don’t want to bug him too much and alienate him.

How will the registry work?

It’s kind of like the FedEx tracking system. You’ll be able to look at cases, find out why they’re stuck and why they’re not getting to their end destination on time.

Right now, there’s no technology involved—you have to look up the phone number for the crime lab. The SAFER registry and the technology behind it will help victims keep up with the process and will also help the detective solve their own cases.

How far back to these kits go?

It varies a lot. Some places have kits going back to the ‘80s. Most of the really old kits will never get tested.

In a rape case, in the courtroom, it’s trying to compare the credibility of each story. But when the prosecutor can walk in and say not only does the DNA evidence mach the suspect, but when we looked back at the evidence, he raped 11 other people as well… Suddenly, the credibility shifts. The jury expects to see the technology/DNA results in the case. If it matches up in 11 cases, that’s not a coincidence.

What’s the average time it takes to process a kit?

It varies a lot. You should be able to do it in a couple weeks. In the U.K. it’s done very quickly and there’s no backlog. In the U.S. it can range from a month to years.

How has the technology improved and changed the process in the last decade?

We know more about DNA collection and storage now. In the earlier days, a lot of the DNA collected ended up being stored or collected incorrectly. Now, there are SANEs—sexual assault nurse examiners—a regular RN who has received extra training on how to collect forensic evidence. When a SANE collects the evidence as opposed to an untrained doctor or nurse, the chances that it will yield a usable DNA profile goes up substantially.

As CODIS has expanded, every profile we add expands the utility of it because it increases the chances of finding a match.

The registry is very simple—just a web-based searchable database. The last thing we want to do is divert police resources to buying new technology. We want to let them put their resources into solving cases. But this uses technology in such a way that it will make what’s going on very transparent to the public and Congress.

What’s the status of the Act?

It was just introduced in the House in April by Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Ted Poe (R-Texas), so we’re working on the House now, hoping for the hearing after the August recess.

How will it be funded?

Of the money [currently] being spent on DNA, a lot of it’s not going toward casework. It’s going to everything from conferences to overhead to research. So [SAFER] takes that money and uses it for one-time grants for local law enforcement. So the bill is cost-free. No additional federal spending.

What’s the upshot of all this?

Justice for more survivors, and more rapists off the street. Being transparent like this brings gentle pressure for everyone involved in the system to act more quickly and carefully and get the job done. When a local newspaper looks a that data from their town and sees they’re trailing everyone in the state, the mayor will step up and say, “We need to do better here.” On a national level, it’ll let us target the money more efficiently.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure