An Unlikely Alliance In Congress Has A Plan To Fix The Nationwide Rape Kit Backlog

Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), above, and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced the Rape Kit Backlog Act on Wednesday morning.
Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), above, and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced the Rape Kit Backlog Act on Wednesday morning.

Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), above, and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced the Rape Kit Backlog Act on Wednesday morning.

There are more than 100,000 rape kits sitting untested in police storage units across the country. California has nearly 14,000 untested rape kits, Texas just over 6,000 and New Jersey around 1,200. In several states the number of untested rape kits is completely unknown due to a lack of oversight and reporting. 

The Rape Kit Backlog Act, a bipartisan bill introduced Wednesday, is designed to change that. The bill, whose details were shared exclusively with HuffPost, was introduced by Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and seeks to improve reporting requirements on the number of untested rape kits in each state. 

“My life was completely upended when I was raped at 16 years old. It took years to regain my voice as a survivor,” Mace told HuffPost in a statement. “Today, over 100,000 women across the country cannot regain their voice because their rape kit sits unprocessed on a shelf, depriving these women of their due process and ability to get justice. It’s unacceptable.”

A rape kit, also known as a sexual assault kit, is created during a medical exam to collect physical evidence left on a survivor’s body after an assault. Once a rape kit is compiled at a hospital, it is sent to police to be tested for DNA, which can then be used to prosecute the attacker and, in some cases, identify serial predators. But rape kits ― which cost $1,000 to $1,500 to test ― often end up sitting untested in law enforcement facilities around the country due to inadequate resources or funding.

The bill would require state and local governments to report whether or not they have conducted a comprehensive inventory of rape kits in their possession. The inventory would identify the physical location of the kits, whether they are tested or untested, and review if the results of tested kits were uploaded into a database called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which in many states allows survivors to track their rape kit.

“The law says that rape is a severe offense. But while rape is technically illegal, the lack of justice for survivors means it is effectively decriminalized,” Lee told HuffPost in a statement.

“In my home state of California alone, we have over 14,000 untested rape kits ― each one representing a rapist who got off unscathed and a victim demoralized,” she continued. “This bill will strengthen reporting of rape kit backlogs across the nation, improve accountability and take a meaningful step in the fight to end violence against women.”

The legislation does not provide new funds to states but instead brings critical oversight to an issue that has been plaguing the justice system for decades. State and local agencies will be mandated to complete the reporting requirements annually. If an agency does not meet the annual requirement, it will become ineligible to use the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, which is the leading source of federal justice funding to state and local governments.

“The Rape Kit Backlog Progress Act is a crucial step towards accountability and transparency in addressing the backlog crisis,” Mace said. “By mandating reporting of comprehensive inventories and tracking the upload of results into CODIS, we are empowering law enforcement agencies to swiftly identify perpetrators and bring them to justice. Together, we can fight for a system which prioritizes survivors and ensures that no kit is left untested.”

Testing rape kits is important for several reasons. A kit can identify an unknown perpetrator or confirm the presence of a known suspect. A rape kit can also confirm a survivor’s account of an assault, help solve other cases that might not involve sexual violence and exonerate innocent people. And it can connect a suspect to other crimes around the country.

The rape kit backlog hit the public consciousness in the last decade in large part because of the work of a program called End the Backlog, a campaign created by the nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation, which, along with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, has endorsed Mace and Lee’s bill. At least 225,000 untested rape kits have been discovered in the last 10 years, according to End the Backlog. 

“When a survivor goes to authorities to get a sexual assault kit administered, they’ve done their part to find justice. It’s past time for states to do the same,” Stefan Turkheimer, interim vice president of public policy for RAINN, told HuffPost. “This bill will shine a light on these untested kits, each one of which represents a human being who went through an awful trauma and deserves their chance at justice.” 

Scroll below to read the Rape Kit Backlog Act in full. 

Rape Kit Backlog Act of 2023 by Alanna Vagianos

Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.