The rape kit backlog problem

A rape kit holds evidence collected in a hospital from the victim of a sexual assault. It includes physical evidence, photographs, and medical notes, and most critically it often contains DNA of the perpetrator of the crime. Collecting rape kit evidence costs money, and testing for DNA can cost a good deal more, as much as several thousand dollars. Consequently many rape kits remain in storage, untested. No one knows how many, but in some states there are thought to be thousands in every major city.

Yesterday NPR reported on a proposal before the Texas legislature to let applicants for driver’s licenses to donate money to be used to test the kits. In the past the legislature has appropriated funds to pay to address the backlog, but otherwise the expense falls on local governments. It’s mind-boggling that governments — state or local — would try to save a few bucks by basically ignoring a serious crime. Where the kits have been tested, numerous serial rapists have been identified and ultimately captured and prosecuted. Pursuing criminals is obviously one of the most basic jobs of government.

Texas isn’t the only state with the problem, but Georgia, at least, has recently decided to do something about it. An effort to address the problem had been blocked by the chair of a state senate committee who refused even to hold hearings. (That senator is a Republican presumably concerned about the cost, and more surprisingly a woman.) Fortunately, a handful of good guys in the Georgia House of Representatives were determined to address the backlog, and despite major obstacles managed to squeezed a bill through at the very end of the session. The result was something to cheer about, and last month Full Frontal with Samantha Bee ran this encouraging report about the heroic and ultimately successful effort:


This may remind some of you of a report that surfaced during the 2008 presidential campaign. Back when Sarah Palin (John McCain’s running mate) had been mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, the town started charging rape victims and their medical insurance companies for the expense of collecting a rape kit (which at the time reportedly cost about $500 to $1200). The policy had been introduced as a cost-saving measure by Wasilla’s police chief, Charlie Fallon, who had been hired by Palin to replace the previous chief, whom she had fired. Prior to the change of policy, the city of about 7000 residents had budgeted $15,000 a year to pay for rape kits. In 2000 the Alaska legislature took up a bill to prohibit Wasilla’s practice, and despite Police Chief Fallon’s vocal opposition it passed unanimously.

When this was reported during the 2008 campaign a spokesperson for Palin said that she had never been in favor of charging victims for rape kits, and there appears to be no evidence of her publicly favoring the policy. Nor did she publicly oppose it, even when the legislature was debating the bill to outlaw it. It seems unlikely that she was unaware of the policy, however, given news coverage and the fact that a mayor would presumably pay attention to changes in the town’s budget. For more on this see Megan Capentier’s piece from Jezebel, and also fact checks at and Politifact and this article from CNN.

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