In 2022, at least 25,000 untested rape kits sat in law enforcement agencies and crime labs across the country. This figure only accounts for data reported by 30 states and Washington, DC; the total backlog number is unknown.
Untested rape kits can have significant consequences for both the criminal justice system and sexual assault survivors. Not only can rape kit testing provide crucial evidence that helps identify perpetrators and bring them to justice, it also can connect perpetrators to other assaults. Failing to test kits in a timely manner can mean missed opportunities to identify serial offenders and prevent further victimization.
The failure to submit rape kits for lab testing in numerous jurisdictions has decreased community trust in law enforcement. Survivors from Houston in 2020 to Memphis in 2023 have filed class action lawsuits against city officials for their rape kit backlogs, asserting that timely testing of rape kits could have prevented their own or others’ sexual assaults.
In the aftermath of a sexual assault, victims can choose to undergo a forensic examination using a sexual assault evidence collection kit, commonly known as a “rape kit.” This kit contains supplies like swabs and test tubes, which are later sent to a crime lab for testing.
The purpose of a rape kit is to enhance the likelihood of viable DNA samples to test. It involves an invasive, hours-long examination, during which the victim is swabbed for potential biological evidence of the perpetrator’s DNA. The rape kit is typically then transferred to a law enforcement agency responsible for logging the evidence and forwarding it to a crime lab for testing.
The distinction between unsubmitted kits in law enforcement custody and untested kits at the crime lab
However, kits often accumulate at the law enforcement agency or the crime lab, leaving survivors to wait years before receiving their test results. Although the exact count of kits backlogged nationwide remains unknown, a report by the Congressional Research Service that summarized existing research on the topic found estimates of the backlog ranging from 90,000 to 400,000.
A white paper by the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women described some possible factors leading to sexual assault kit backlogs, including victim-blaming attitudes and actions, budget cuts and reduced crime lab staff, and bias against women and victims of sex crimes.
The Justice Department has initiated grant programs to address the issue, including the DNA Capacity Enhancement for Backlog Reduction in 2004 and the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative in 2015. These programs offer funding to states to help them clear their backlogs. With combined spending for these programs exceeding $1.3 billion since 2011, the question remained: which states have cleared their backlogs, and which haven’t? How many untested rape kits are still backlogged within law enforcement agencies and crime labs?
USAFacts filed public records requests with all 50 states to find out.
Due to the lack of publicly available data, USAFacts asked states to provide detailed breakdowns of yearly backlogs at law enforcement agencies and crime labs. Thirty states and Washington, DC had some backlog data available for the period between 2018 and 2022, either through publicly available reports or by responding to our requests for information.
At least five states — Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Oregon, and West Virginia — announced that they completed backlog testing prior to providing USAFacts with backlog data. However, this doesn’t guarantee that they don’t still have untested kits in crime labs and law enforcement agencies.
When these states report clearing their backlogs, they are typically referring to kits that have awaited testing for decades. This does not include recently collected kits awaiting testing at law enforcement agencies and crime labs. Oregon State Police, for example, declared the elimination of the state’s rape kit backlog in 2018. However, recent data collected by USAFacts revealed that Oregon had 790 untested rape kits in the state lab in 2022.
Comparing backlog data between states has some limitations due to differing definitions and inconsistencies in law enforcement reporting. However, USAFacts analysis revealed that among states that provided data, Maryland had the highest number of backlogged rape kits in law enforcement agencies (3,599), while North Carolina had the highest number in crime labs (9,045) in 2022.
Here are some other insights from the data.
Backlog of unsubmitted rape kits held by law enforcement agencies
Among the 18 states that provided data about rape kits in law enforcement possession, only Connecticut, Alaska, and New Hampshire reported no kits held by law enforcement that hadn’t been submitted to a crime lab for testing by the end of 2022. Connecticut has maintained a backlog-free status since 2018. Alaska successfully cleared its 2018 backlog of 2,568 unsubmitted kits, while New Hampshire considerably reduced its backlog from 582 kits in 2019 to just one kit in 2022. North Carolina and Michigan also significantly reduced their unsubmitted kits from 2018 to 2022, by 99% and 95%, respectively.
While some states eliminated or lowered their rape kit backlogs, the backlog grew in other states. Unsubmitted kits in Louisiana and Oregon increased by 37% and 39%, respectively, since 2018, reaching 119 and 441 in 2022. Texas had a 45% increase in unsubmitted kits from 2021 to 2022, the only years for which it provided data.
Among the available data, Maryland had the highest number of unsubmitted kits in 2022 (3,599).
The accuracy of data about the law enforcement backlog relies heavily on the state’s ability to collect backlog data from every law enforcement agency within its jurisdiction. Law enforcement reporting rates vary across states and at times, between years. For instance, Louisiana obtains rape kit backlog data through an annual law enforcement agency survey. In 2022, the completion rate among police departments was 67%, a decrease from 99% in 2021.
Backlog of untested rape kits held by crime labs
Among the 23 states that provided crime lab backlog data, five — North Carolina, Oregon, West Virginia, Louisiana, and North Dakota — had the number of untested rape kits held by crime labs for more than 30 days increase more than fivefold since 2018. Some of these states had large decreases in their law enforcement backlogs.
Conversely, nine states decreased their crime lab backlogs by 30% or more over that time. Similarly to its law enforcement backlog, Connecticut has maintained a crime lab backlog of 0 since 2018.
North Carolina and Massachusetts had the most kits in crime lab backlogs in 2022, with 9,045 and 2,206 kits awaiting testing, respectively. Texas followed, with 1,451.
The way states define a backlog affects each states’ specific backlog figures. USAFacts’ records requests asked for data on kits awaiting testing for 30 or more days by the end of the year (in this case, 2022), in accordance with the National Institute of Justice’s definition.
Despite this, states including Texas and South Dakota provided data solely for kits waiting untested for 90 or more days, while Pennsylvania defined a backlog as kits remaining untested for over a year.
These variations in definition emphasize the importance of context on the backlog numbers, as well as the need for standardization in data collection.
Some states sent us kit-level data, which allowed us to find the oldest kits to be tested between 2018 and 2022. The offense date of Kentucky’s oldest kit on file was January 7, 1993, and it completed testing 28 years later, in 2021. Washington’s oldest kit on file, originating from an offense on January 14, 1984, was tested after a 38-year delay, in 2022.
According to the National Institute of Justice, testing rape kits in older cases can cause complex psychological issues for the survivor. Informing victims about the testing can evoke memories tied to the assault, potentially re-traumatizing them. This re-traumatization can worsen symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and amplify other mental health problems.
One way to measure a state’s progress towards clearing its backlog is the speed at which it tests rape kits upon arrival. To calculate this, we found the percentage of kits that states tested within 30 days of receiving them in their labs in 2022.
Connecticut emerged on top, testing 100% of its 542 kits within 30 days or less. Massachusetts followed, testing 686 out of 711 kits (96%).
However, most states failed to test more than 50% of their kits within 30 days of receiving them.
In 2022, Maryland, West Virginia, Michigan, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon, New Mexico, and Washington DC tested 5% or less of their kits within a 30-day window. Furthermore, the majority of states did not provide 30-day turnaround data when asked. States such as Texas and Georgia stated that they do not track this number.
Standardized and regularly reported data on rape kit backlogs is critical. States like California, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania have consistently disclosed their backlog data since 2018, demonstrating that progress in rape kit backlog data is possible. Prioritizing comprehensive and timely data collection can contribute to significant progress in addressing the issue of sexual violence and ensuring justice for survivors.
If you or someone you know are a survivor of sexual assault, the Justice Department can help provide support and guidance.
Read more about USAFacts’ methodology on compiling rape kit backlog data.
For a fuller picture of crime in the US, read about anonymously reported sexual assault at military academies. Get USAFacts data in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.
Keep up with the latest data and most popular content.