Sexual Assault Kit Backlogs: A Disturbing Trend
In recent years, DNA evidence has become the new standard in determining the conviction or exoneration of a person accused of committing a crime. Not only advances in DNA technology, but popular television programs highlighting (and at times overstating) current forensic sciences capabilities have given rise to a much higher expectation from the public. In sexual assault cases, the proper collection, preservation, and tracking of DNA evidence are of particular importance. Sexual Assaults Kits, also known as SAKs, are utilized by trained medical professionals during forensic medical examinations to collect and preserve evidence of a reported sexual assault. Protocols may vary across the country, but generally speaking, once a forensic medical examination of a victim has been completed, law enforcement officers from appropriate jurisdictions are called upon to respond and take custody of the SAKs, document the chain of custody, and enter them as evidence via the agency’s evidence management software. In recent years, studies have shown significant backlogs in laboratory analyses of SAKs. The backlogs are attributed to a number of reasons. Many agencies rely on sharing state crime labs that are mandated, pursuant to statute, to provide services to smaller agencies with finite resources. Some agencies automatically request analysis of all SAKs, while others review individual cases before sending SAKs to a laboratory. DNA analysis is expensive and undoubtedly affects an agency’s budget. So, cases are prioritized, causing further backlogging within the agency’s evidence unit. Certain jurisdictions and prosecutors may utilize discretion in determining whether a SAK should undergo laboratory analysis based upon facts and circumstances of individual cases. A few examples may include the following scenarios:
- The victim and suspect provide statements that corroborate with eye witness accounts
- The victim of an alleged sexual assault recants
- The investigation reveals that the alleged sexual assault was a consensual act
- The case is declined by the prosecutor
The purpose of the Sexual Assault Kit is to identify and convict the perpetrator of the crime. Therefore, concerns raised over backlogs are not only natural but understandable. Furthermore, DNA profiles can be used to connect other crimes through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database. Legislators have taken steps to address the SAK testing backlog pursuant to provisions in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) of 2013. VAWA grants have been awarded to law enforcement and forensic response agencies for the evaluation of SAKs and to reduce backlogs. The law stipulates that the state must demonstrate that sexual assault victims have access to a free-of-charge forensic medical examination. Moreover, victims’ access to an examination is not contingent upon their participation in the criminal justice system.
As mentioned previously, there have been several studies and reports highlighting extensive backlogs in laboratory analyses of evidence collected from victims of sexual assault. The idea of an untested SAK with potential DNA evidence that could solve a series of sexual assaults in the community should be alarming to any agency. A thorough audit of SAKs and their case disposition is paramount for any agency developing an action plan to address backlog issues and to be better prepared when responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. Furthermore, the audit may uncover lapses in protocol. It’s not uncommon for an agency to discover discrepancies within the evidence unit that impact standard operating procedure. A physical inventory of every SAK is a good starting point. A careful inspection of each SAK may be challenging, but it will also provide a quality control opportunity to ensure that basic processes are being followed, including but not limited to:
- Ensuring packaging is intact and sealed
- Ensuring SAKs are stored in the appropriate location and under optimal conditions
- Ensuring labeling is consistent with evidence control forms
- Ensuring barcodes are not damaged, missing or erroneous
Unfortunately, a physical inventory of the evidence does not always match a report generated by the evidence management software. Discrepancies are common. For instance, when Sexual Assault Kits are entered or logged in as evidence, officers oftentimes label them differently. There are many names used to refer to Sexual Assault Kits such as Sex Assault Kit, Rape Kit, Sex Kit, Sex Crimes Kit, Sex Evidence, and Sex Crimes Unit, to name just a few. Refraining from the use of this kind of varied nomenclature and implementing naming conventions for specific items when labeling and entering items into the evidence management software will eliminate the need to run multiple reports and queries. Since many evidence management systems have limited search and querying capabilities, it’s important for Sexual Assault Kits to be entered as such eliminating, or at least mitigating, discrepancies.
Additionally, it’s important for the agency to justify the reasons SAKs have not been tested. The creation of circumstance codes within the evidence management software will allow for quick and reliable reports to answer these inquiries. Some example Circumstance Codes are:
- SAK for Sexual Assault Kit
- SAKCL for Sexual Assault Kit – Crime Lab
- SAKVR for Sexual Assault Kit – Victim Recanted
- SAKPD for Sexual Assault Kit – Prosecutor Declined
Bringing violent sex offenders to justice is a high priority in every community and for every agency. Therefore, it is paramount for agencies to obtain and utilize advanced evidence management software capable of generating reports within any field or alerting authorized personnel of a specific action to be taken with regards to an item of evidence. Furthermore, agencies will benefit by gaining control over any existing SAK backlogs.