Tackling The ‘Rape Kit Backlog’

October 11, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

In August, police in Dallas, Texas, arrested former dentist David Thomas Hawkins, 75, for an aggravated sexual assault — that happened nearly four decades ago. In 1985, Hawkins had raped at gunpoint Carrie Krejci, and since then had successfully eluded authorities. It was only this year that police were able to identify Hawkins, thanks to  the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s (BJA) Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI).

SAKI is a grant program that the BJA established in 2015 as a way to tackle the growing number of sexual assault kits in law enforcement custody that hadn’t been submitted for analysis, and — in doing so — give victims some measure of resolution. This is also known, colloquially, as the “rape kit backlog.” The program is administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Violent Criminal Apprehension (ViCAP) Program.

The funding is used for a number of purposes, including to:

  • inventory the existing numbers of unsubmitted SAKs
  • test these kits
  • assign personnel to pursue new investigative leads and prosecutions in these cases
  • assign personnel to support victims throughout the investigation and prosecution process
  • develop evidence-tracking systems
  • train law enforcement on sexual assault investigations
  • conduct research on outcomes in sexual assault cases
  • increase collection of offender DNA for CODIS upload purposes so as to better identify serious and serial sex offenders.

SAKI partners include nonprofits that specialize in forensic sciences in the context of the criminal justice system; combating human and sex trafficking; handling domestic and sexual violence cases; victim and family advocacy in violent crime situations; child abuse; etc. It also partners with university research teams, healthcare professionals, psychology experts, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

In describing why it is crucial for these kits to be tested, the FBI says that “many of these kits contain a definitive (and in some cases, the only) piece of evidence linking an offender to a victim—DNA.” The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s leading anti-sexual-assault organization and an official partner picked by the Justice Department to provide technical assistance and support to SAKI grantees, says that DNA evidence has “become a critical factor in achieving justice for survivors of sexual violence,” and that the “overwhelming backlog of DNA evidence is currently one of the biggest obstacles to prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence.” It is estimated that testing DNA evidence may “help solve anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of these backlogged cases.”

In addition, per the BJA, around 60% of sexual assault offenders can be linked to multiple other crimes, with many of these cases having around 10–20 other crimes linked to them. Solving these crimes and apprehending those responsible for perpetrating them, then, becomes imperative to removing a serial offender with multiple victims from the streets.

In the Dallas case, for instance, Hawkins eventually admitted to raping at least 30 other women in the area between 1982 and 1985. Just through testing Krejci’s kit and then following up on the investigation, law enforcement were able to bring some measure of peace and closure to 31 women.

Currently, there is no federal or central database tracking the total number of untested and unsubmitted SAKs, but estimates range from at least 100,000 to as high as 225,000. This might just be a conservative estimate in itself, however, since at least 15 states and many large cities are yet to even count the exact number of untested rape kits that they have. 

When it comes to why there is such a large backlog, the reasons are complicated and extensive, often boiling down simply to individual attitudes or biases. According to the SAKI website, other factors include:

  • Poor evidence tracking
  • Outdated and ineffective investigation practices
  • Lack of resources and personnel
  • Misunderstanding of crime lab case acceptance policies
  • Lack of understanding among law enforcement personnel about the value of testing SAKs.
  • Lack of policies and protocols for rape kit testing

Though DNA evidence has been admissible and has been used in court cases for several decades now, the backlog in untested kits was largely unknown until very recently. Since the 2015 establishment of SAKI by then-president Barack Obama’s administration, however, significant progress has been made.

SAKI has disbursed more than $200 million in grants to local, state, and Tribal law enforcement agencies across the country. Currently, there are about 70 active SAKI grants across 44 states. Reports are submitted by local agencies on a quarterly basis, meaning the data is not available on a real-time basis. However, the latest analysis, as of June 2021, shows that at least 1159 convictions (including plea agreements) have come out of the 81,563 kits that were sent for testing nationwide over the last six years.

Image source: SAKI Performance Metrics & Research

Over this same period, Dallas County has received over $5.3 million in funding from SAKI, through which they were able to hire two investigators, victim advocates, and prosecutors each solely for handling cold case homicides and sexual assaults. These moves led directly to Hawkins’ arrest and to him eventually receiving, in September, four life sentences in prison.

Some highlights of the statistics elaborated above are as follows:

  • More than 60 sexual assault offenders have been convicted in Wayne County, Michigan
  • A serial rapist was linked to 7 cases in Cuyahoga County, Ohio
  • Metro Police found 43 CODIS hits on cases and have arrested 8 offenders in Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Montana has received funding to establish a task force to count the number of unsubmitted SAKs in the state’s possession, finding around 1,400 to send for testing.

The goal of SAKI, according to officials, is twofold. On one hand, it is to chip away steadily at the built-up backlog. On the other, it is to ensure that such an extreme “accumulation of unsubmitted kits” never happens again. In addition to bringing rapists to justice, the program is also designed to help victims recover and heal by giving them some sort of resolution to their trauma, even if it comes later than anticipated.

As then-Vice President Joe Biden, a champion of SAKI, said, “Rape kits are an essential tool in modern crime fighting — not only for the victim, but for the entire community. When we solve these cases, we get rapists off the streets. For most survivors, seeing their rapists brought to justice, and knowing that they will not return, brings peace of mind and a sense of closure.”