South Dakota recently finished testing all the rape kits in a backlog of unexamined evidence accumulated over years.
But success in the Midwestern state is only part of the national story. Estimates have placed the number of kits in the national backlog in the thousands, or even hundreds of thousands—but the real number is unknown, because some entire states have not yet even conducted an audit.
Some states have already eliminated their backlogs—like South Dakota. Others have collected and counted thousands of kits, and are attempting to address them in crime laboratories across the country. But others have not counted the untested pile of kits. And some states have made progress in certain cities, but not others.
“It’s kind of a patchwork quilt,” said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation. “We still don’t know more than we know about it.”
Knecht told Forensic Magazine in a phone interview about the state of the backlog at the beginning of 2017, just days into a new U.S. presidential administration.
The Joyful Heart Foundation, one of the foremost anti-rape groups in the country, announced in November that 24,000 more kits were audited in seven states. That includes more than 6,400 kits in Arizona, which were discovered after Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order to conduct a statewide audit. Other counts made through legislation or executive order produced 3,800 kits in Alaska; 3,500 in Georgia; more than 3,700 in Maryland; more than 3,000 in Pennsylvania; and more than 1,400 each in Hawaii and Montana.
Among those untapped pieces of evidence, general results can be expected based on prior testing, experts told Forensic Magazine.
Half of them will yield enough DNA for a CODIS profile, and half of those will produce a hit in the database. Thus, a quarter of the untested kits are going to be a match for someone on the radar of law enforcement.
Knecht said the general trend of testing kits from even decades ago produces CODIS hits of an average of 1 in 4. South Dakota, which had 500 kits on its shelves, had 83 hits—establishing a rate of 16 percent, state officials told Forensic Magazine. Colorado eliminated its backlog of 3,543 kits last summer, with a CODIS hit rate of roughly 20 percent.
Even that rate produces breakthroughs that can save everyone time and money—and make vital investigative connections, Knecht said.
“It’s about using the database for the purpose it was created,” Knecht said. “It’s very powerful, when it’s used as intended.”
Some states are still outliers. New York and California have some counts from local agencies, but there is no statewide audit underway, Knecht said. Similarly, North Carolina has produced data from some of the large agencies—but not from others. Other states have produced little to no information at all, she added.
But in the meantime, there have been some positive trends. Many states have established mandatory testing for all kits heading forward, and the federal government has continued to budget millions to work through the backlogs at state and local levels.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” Knecht added.