Colorado 9 news, and national media partners, have been looking into backlogged sexual assault evidence collection kits (sometimes referred to as rape kits) and why tens of thousands of them around the country have not been tested. This means that DNA is not being tested and rape cases are remaining unsolved. When sexual assault evidence collection kits are tested, the DNA is put into a database system called CODIS. CODIS looks for matches to DNA profiles already in the database and keeps that sample on file for identifying future offenders. Testing sexual assault evidence collection kits not only helps solve a current crime but it can also link perpetrators to prior and future assaults. It is important to note that while sexual assault evidence collection kits are very important, DNA is only one piece of the entire puzzle in investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults.
In Colorado, following a legislative mandate in 2013 (HB13-1020), law enforcement agencies determined that 3,500 kits sitting in their evidence storage lockers should be tested. The testing has led to over 300 CODIS hits and at least one solved rape case. So, in Colorado and nationally, why are all these kits backlogged?
The answer is more complex than one would think. Backlogs result for a variety of reasons including: the expense of testing each kit, which ranges from $500-$1200 per kit; the use of public versus private crime labs; and agencies lacking adequate guidelines for processing kits. Additionally, the media investigation learned that accessibility to DNA forensic scientists has impacted the capacity to test kits.
It was discovered that many crime labs that test sexual assault evidence collection kits are lacking sufficiently trained forensic scientists, which is due in part to a small pool of available, trained scientists. The pool of DNA testing scientists is especially limited because current curriculums are insufficient to the job requirements. Consequently, people aspiring to be DNA scientists have to obtain additional education to specialize in DNA testing. You add these additional educational requirements to salary discrepancies between public and private crime labs and lack of equipment to complete tasks in a timely manner, and it makes for the perfect backlog cocktail.
Colorado has already taken significant steps with House Bill 13-1020 (more details on this website) which mandates expedient and appropriate testing, if the victim consents to the testing. Although these are excellent steps, if we want to avoid future backlog issues with our sexual assault evidence collection kits we need to ensure that we have the resources to test them in a timely manner. This includes promoting forensic science education and possibly incorporating specialization within educational program curricula.
Author: Stacey McClellan