This week, the Houston Police Department finished playing a long game of catch-up: 6,600 untested rape kits that had been languishing in police stations or crime labs for over 30 years have been tested and analyzed, yielding 850 matches in the FBI’s national DNA database, known as CODIS.
After spending five years and $6 million testing and processing the kits, Houston has already filed charges in 29 cases. Six have resulted in convictions, and police will continue to review the results in search of additional leads.
It’s a key moment for Houston, but as the city’s district attorney noted when announcing the benchmark, "This is not a Houston problem. It's not a Texas problem. It's a nationwide issue that built up over years and years.”
As other cities set out to address their own backlogs, here’s what you need to know about the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in the U.S.
How do backlogs happen?
There’s no single explanation for why so much potential evidence has been piling up in multiple cities for years at a time. The most frequently cited reason for the backlogs? Money. Testing usually costs between about $500 and $1,000 per kit. Even if kits are collected by officers filing a police report, inadequately funded crime labs may not have the money, technology, or staff to process them all. And urban police departments have resource shortages that can prevent kits from ever ending up at labs in the first place.
But whether rape kits are sent off for testing isn’t only a matter of dollars and cents; their fate can also boil down to a cop’s discretion. According to a researcher who studied rape cases and kits in Detroit, skepticism of victims’ allegations may have contributed to the backlog, since many cops felt little urgency pursuing claims they considered flimsy.
And even when victims were considered credible, rape kits aren’t always seen as useful. Police officers have been known to operate under the assumption that DNA from kits are only necessary in the event that an assailant’s identity is unknown, and officers fail to submit evidence for processing that could still be valuable -- even in the (all too common) case of acquaintance rape. More broadly, many cities have been shown to have a long history of overlooking and undercounting rape allegations.
Which cities have backlogs, and what is being done to unclog them?
Almost all major urban police departments are confronting backlogs of varying sizes. The good news is that most are taking steps to rectify years of negligence. According to ENDTHEBACKLOG — a program, run by a non-profit for rape and abuse victims, that tracks the backlogs inevery city — four cities are in the earliest stage of counting how many kits have accumulated, two have finished comprehensive counts, 10 are in the midst of DNA testing, and three (New York, Los Angeles, and now Houston) have cleared their backlogs.
New York City was the first to clear its backlog in 2000, when it began a three-year long initiative to test 17,000 kits. The work yielded impressive results: The Manhattan District Attorney filed 49 indictments.
Los Angeles County discovered untested kits in 2002, but didn’t start counting them until 2008. Over 12,000 were catalogued — the biggest backlog at the time — including 800 kits from cases in which the assailant was a stranger to the victim. In 2011, the city announced that it had zero untested rape kits. In the process, they found 753 matches in the FBI’s national DNA database.
In Cleveland, there have been 209 indictments since testing began in 2009, a third of which were for alleged serial rape. Detroit has only processed 2,000 of about 10,000 untested kits since taking stock of the backlog in 2009, but that fraction has already yielded 750 matches in Codis and 23 warrants, including 14 convictions. Detroit prosecutor Kym Worthy also reported that 188 rapists identified through testing had committed crimes in other states.
Her finding highlights one of the terrifying consequences of such backlogs: Rapists who might have been caught and stopped had the kits been processed promptly went on to rape other victims.
In New Orleans, the backlog looks comparatively small: about 800 languishing kits. Last year, the city-inspector excoriated the city’s sex crime unit, documenting over a thousand cases, including incidents of child abuse, that were neglected by investigators between 2011 and 2013. A report last month found that there were almost 100 untested rape kits in the city’s pediatric facilities.
Who pays for the backlog to get processed?
In 2012, when Houston first confronted its backlog — and the attendant costs — its City Council passed a novel ordinance: a tax on local strip clubs would require venues to pay five dollars per customer toward rape-kit testing. Even more traditional establishments could incur the fee if they hosted adult activities like, say, a “naked sushi contest.” A year later, the Council took a more conventional approach to appropriations, allocating over $4 million to finish clearing the backlog.
In most cases, funding includes both state and federal money. Efforts got a boost at the end of last year when Congress approved $41 million to help reduce the backlog.
Drawing on admittedly smaller coffers, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced that New York would pledge $35 million in civil-forfeiture funds for an initiative that would help other cities like Memphis (11,000 untested kits) and Las Vegas (4,000 untested kits) process their backlogs.
Whether or not local taxpayers support this use of their dollars, one thing is clear: the untested kits have come at a steep price. In Cleveland, prosecutors calculated that the cost of tackling backlogged cases would be over $500 million more than if they had been processed when the evidence was first collected.
What happens after testing?
If a match is found, police departments and district attorney offices begin the process of investigating, charging, indicting, and convicting. "The case still needs to be fully investigated like it should have been fully investigated when this first happened," Kym Worthy has said about rape-kit results gathered in Detroit. "You put a case together the old-fashioned way."
In some instances, the statute of limitations may preclude any follow-up. In Texas, Senator Wendy Davis lobbied for removing this barrier, arguing that allegations against rapists should never be considered too old to pursue, but so far no legislation has been put in place. Michigan lawmakers eliminated the statute of limitations for first-degree criminal sexual assaults in 2001 (and is considering doing so for all sex crimes), but because the law will not apply retroactively, it has no effect on the status of old rape kits.
But many viable cases remain, and as more come to light, districts find themselves in need of a way to pay for them. In Detroit, rather than rely solely on her office’s small budget, Worthy has taken to fundraising. With the help of two non-profits, the Michigan Women’s Foundation, and the Detroit Crime Commission, she has launched the Enough SAID campaign with the goal of raising $10 million to pursue charges against alleged criminals.
In Houston, the District Attorney preempted the inundation of evidence from the processed rape kits, soliciting the counsel of any veteran prosecutors who would be willing to help sift through the aftermath. A dozen or so attorneys answered the call.
The backlog’s cascading effect — a transfer of burdens from one sphere of criminal justice to another — will, ideally, come to an end. The rape kits will be tested, offenders will be prosecuted, and cities will be able to catch up. This logic only holds, however, if the backlog isn’t allowed to reaccumulate.
Illinois, Texas, and Colorado, have passed forward-looking legislation aimed at curbing future backlogs. Law enforcement now face deadlines for submitting rape kits for testing: 10 days within receiving it in Illinois, 30 in Texas, 21 in Colorado.
Compliance with these laws, however, may be a whole different story. When Texas Senator Wendy Davis required police agencies to test backlogged kits, she soon realized her mandate was going unheeded — and had to send a follow-up reminder.