By Maria Caspani
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of rape kits remain untested in four major U.S. cities, according to new data on rape kit backlogs released on Friday by the Joyful Heart Foundation.
The charity, founded by actress and advocate Mariska Hargitay to assist survivors of sexual assault, said it used public records requests to obtain data showing the number of untested kits in police storage facilities in Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Seattle and Tulsa.
“This new data reminds us that we still have so much more to learn about the extent of the rape kit backlog in the United States," said Sarah Tofte director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, in a statement.
The data released Friday is part of The Accountability Project, an effort by the foundation, in a pro bono partnership with law firms Goodwin Procter LLP and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, to uncover the extent of the rape kit backlog in the United States.
“To me, the rape kit backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how we regard sexual assault in our society," Hargitay said in a statement. "A rape kit can bring justice, so often an integral part of a survivor's healing. Testing rape kits sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence: You matter."
Rape kits are used by law enforcement to collect DNA evidence from the body and clothing of a victim of sexual assault and can provide police with key evidence.
However, tens of thousands of those kits remain untested around the country, some for years, according to researchers.
In Las Vegas, Nevada records showed that of the 5,231 rape kits collected from 2004 to 2014, only 846, or 16 percent, were sent to the lab for analysis.
Over 2,600 untested kits are stored in police facilities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Attorney General's office reported an additional 3,351 rape kits statewide had not been tested yet.
In Oklahoma, the city of Tulsa reported a backlog of 3,783 untested rape kits dating from 1989 to 2011.
Records from Seattle, Washington showed that of the 1,641 rape kits collected from 2004 to 2014, only 365, or 22 percent, were sent to the crime lab. The rest remain untested.
Few states and no federal agencies require that law enforcement track or count the untested rape kits in their storage facilities.
The exact number of the backlog is unknown, but recent estimates put it at around 100,000, the Washington Post reported in June.
On Sept. 29, President Obama signed into law the Debbie Smith Reauthorization Act of 2014, which provides the Department of Justice $151 million annually through fiscal 2019 for the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant to help police departments reduce their rape kit backlogs.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani; Editing by Lisa Anderson)