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Testing evidence kits sends positive message to rape victims, ASU expert says

Gov. Doug Ducey vows to allocate money to ease backlog of unexamined evidence

January 11, 2017

Gov. Doug Ducey promised that when he releases his budget Friday, he'll allocate enough money to clear the backlog of untested rape kits in Arizona.

An Arizona State University expert on sexual assault believes that will send a positive message to rape victims.

portrait of ASU professor Cassia Spohn

Cassia Spohn (left), director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, recently wrote an article about untested sexual-assault kits for the Journal of Criminology and Public Policy.

“It’s a complicated issue, and the reasons vary from one jurisdiction to another,” said Spohn, who also is a Foundation Professor and author of “Policing and Prosecuting Sexual Assault: Inside the Criminal Justice System,” which was published in 2014.

Evidence kitsWhen a sexual assault is reported to police, the victim undergoes an exhaustive examination of the entire body, with swabs and photographs, for DNA evidence left behind by the attacker—a process that takes four to six hours to complete. That evidence is preserved in a sexual assault evidence kit. are sitting untested across the country. The nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation tracks the issue and estimates that there are hundreds of thousands untested rape kits nationwide.

Last year, Ducey created a task force to study the issue, which he admitted was so bad that no one knew how many kits were untested. In September, the Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit Task Force released a report, revealing that there were more than 6,400 unsubmitted sex crimes evidence kits across Arizona. During the year, several police departments received grants to clear the backlog, and the group estimated that by the time the grant money ran out, there would be 2,000 untested kits remaining.

During his State of State speech Monday, Ducey said that the testing resulted in two indictments and that he would ask the Legislature to fund the testing of the remaining backlog, as well as future evidence kits.

Spohn discussed why that’s important:

Question: Why do so many jurisdictions have large backlogs of untested rape kits?

Answer: One reason is a lack of laboratories to do the testing, and a lack of resources.

Also, some jurisdictions have adopted policies where they triage the testing of kits, so those in which the victims and suspects are strangers are prioritized. But those are not the cases that occur with the most frequency in the U.S. The typical sexual assault that is reported to the police involve a victim and a suspect who are acquainted in some way. So if those are not the priority, a lot of kits won’t be tested.

Q: Are there good reasons for testing kits involving victims and suspects who are not strangers?

A: I think there are. For example, testing can confirm that there was sexual contact. The suspect might claim there was no contact.

It can confirm the identity of the suspect, and it could possibly reveal that the suspect has committed crimes like this in the past.

Q: And what about the victims?

A: The victims who report the crime to police undergo what is by all accounts a degrading forensic medical exam only to be told that their kit sat on the shelf in a police evidence room and was never sent for testing. That says “we don’t think this case is important and we’re not going to do all we can to ensure that the suspect is brought to justice.”

Testing the kit sends a message that “We realize this exam was difficult, and we appreciate that face and we’re going to take it seriously.”

Q: Is there more awareness about this issue?

A: There’s clearly a recognition in the Department of Justice that this is a problem. The department has established a grant program that allows jurisdictions to apply for federal funding to reduce their backlog.