Untested rape kits from more than 100,000 sexual assault cases around the country have been sent for DNA testing using money from a federal program as well as that from a New York prosecutor.
It’s currently estimated that over the last three years the testing has resulted in over 1,000 arrests and hundreds of convictions.
But it’s estimated that another 155,000 or more sex assault evidence kits still are waiting for testing, and thousands of results remain to be linked to suspects.
Iowa is not immune from the backlog of untested rape kits. During a recent legislative forum, state Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, said the state’s criminalistics laboratory currently has an eight-month backlog of untested kits.
Earlier this week, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. told The Associated Press the effort is a significant start at correcting “an absolute travesty of justice.” Vance made the comment while releasing results of the $38 million investment in testing — all of it outside the judicial district for which he is responsible.
“That backlog not only undermined justice and perception, and reality, of equality — it also made every woman and every American less safe,” Vance said.
New York City worked through a 17,000-case backlog between 2000 and 2003, an effort that resulted in more than 200 prosecutions. Vance, a Democrat elected in 2009, initiated a program that offered other agencies money to attack their own backlogs of untested kits and negotiated discount rates with testing labs.
Vance’s program — funded with $38 million from settlements in banking-related cases — moved more than 55,000 rape kits nationwide to testing labs. The results have yielded 186 arrests and 64 convictions to date, with more investigations and prosecutions still underway.
The Justice Department has put $154 million over three years into its sexual assault initiative. The initiative has resulted in another nearly 45,000 rape kits that have been sent to labs for testing. That effort has produced nearly 899 prosecutions and 498 convictions and plea bargains.
The backlog built up over decades, partly the result of the cost of testing the rape kits that can run $1,000 or more per kit.
While DNA testing of the sexual assault kits is clearly a step in the right direction, such testing is not a surefire way to close cases. Only some rape kits have sufficient DNA to generate a profile of a potential suspect. And only some of those match any profile in the FBI databank. When there is a match, there are times it’s just a match to DNA that turned up at another crime scene, with no name attached unless the person gets arrested in the future.
Even when DNA matches a known offender, prosecution is sometimes not possible because the statute of limitations has expired, the suspect has died or the victim is no longer available to testify.
But those who advocate for sexual assault victims are quick to note that in many cases, as important to the victim as an arrest is the fact that the testing of the rape kits shows the criminal justice system really does care what happened to the victim.