Massive backlog of sexual assault kits shows justice system failing rape victims


A sexual assault is a hugely traumatic experience. Sadly, it’s an experience shared by an estimated 1 in 6 Americans—mostly women.

The aftermath of a rape or sexual assault can be nearly as traumatic as the event itself.

Completing a sexual assault forensic exam (or “rape kit”) can be very difficult. Victims are instructed to avoid showering, using the restroom, or changing clothes. They spend hours at the hospital to complete a head-to-toe medical exam, and get treated for any injuries. They are scraped and swabbed for DNA evidence; blood, hair and urine samples are taken. Then, the rape kit evidence is turned over to police.

The good news: the process preserves evidence, and gives the victim the hope of justice.

The bad news: it’s probably a false hope.

There are 400,000 untested sexual assault kits in the U.S, according to estimates from the Department of Justice.

This is a big problem for two reasons.

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Justice system is failing rape victims

One big problem with the rape kit backlog: it shows that there was no chance of justice or resolution for many, many victims.

Imagine that you are experienced a terrifying, damaging sexual assault: your life is irrevocably changed. When your attacker isn’t punished—or maybe isn’t even identified—that lack of resolution compounds the trauma for many sexual assault survivors.
68% of sexual assault victims don’t report the crime. That means barely 30% of assaults even have the potential to be investigated.

97% of rapists never go to jail for their crimes.

Victims see that as an ongoing failure to identify, prosecute and punish rapists. This does not inspire confidence in the justice system.

The low reporting rate contributes to the absurdly low rate of punishment for sex crimes.

Conversely, the low punishment rate makes it much harder to convince victims to report to police—and submit to invasive examinations and rape kits.

Worse, the existing rape kit backlog means that it can be many months—sometimes, years—for a newly submitted kit to be tested. That is a very long time for a victim to wait, and even more disincentive for victims to report to police.

Failure of prevention

Justice for sexual abuse victims is a very serious issue. However, there’s a bigger problem with the rape kit backlog: many rapists are repeat offenders.

Different studies have found as many as two-thirds of rapists admit to multiple sexual assaults. The underreporting of rape and sexual assault complicates the statistics, but the average is somewhere between 5-6 victims per rapist.

Some of those 400,000 untested rape kits are decades old. There are potentially tens of thousands of serial rapists who were never identified or caught. There are likely thousands of others who were never connected to all of their crimes.

If even half of those rape kits had been tested and catalogued, they would be an enormous contribution to the national DNA database.

How many sexual assault crimes might have been prevented?

We cannot break the dangerous cycle without clearing the backlog of untested rape kits, and giving hundreds of thousands of sexual assault victims the chance for justice.