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Federal funds target national, state backlogs for testing rape kits

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WASHINGTON – As many as 400,000 “rape kits” nationwide have not been tested, thousands of them in Arizona, a backlog that advocates and government officials say is delaying the identification of potential rapists.

That’s why Vice President Joe Biden visited a forensics lab in Baltimore on Monday to push for $41 million in the proposed fiscal 2016 budget that would be used to clear up the backlog of kits, DNA testing kits that can link a suspect to a crime.

“Testing rape kits should be an absolute priority for the United States of America. It works, it matters, it brings closure, it brings justice and that’s why we’re here,” Biden said, during a tour of the Maryland State Police Forensic Science Laboratory.

In Arizona, the true extent of the backlog is uncertain because police departments there, as in many other states, are not required to track the backlog of rape kits.

One Arizona Senate bill is trying to fix that.

State Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said her bill aims to “get a handle” on just how many backlogged kits there are among the state’s many police departments.

Hobbs and other supporters say the most recent numbers they have are from an ABC 15 investigative report in late 2012. That report, now more than two years old, put the number of untested kits at just under 3,000 in the Phoenix metro area alone.

Advocates said that number is likely higher today, especially because not every police department in the state was contacted or responded.

Hobbs says the purpose of her bill is to not only get a sense of how many kits in Arizona are sitting in storage untested, but also why it is that they haven’t been tested.

Hobbs said “the why” for the backlog is integral to knowing how to handle further policy choices once the kits are tracked and their numbers are known.

A White House press release on the federal proposal to reduce the backlog said kits may end up in storage for a variety of reasons. Those range from prosecutors deciding not to request a DNA analysis after the kits are booked into evidence to analysis that is simply not done in a “timely manner.”

Hobbs’ bill, SB 1429, is aimed at assessing the number of backlogged kits and the reason for them, but she said she still recognizes the possible advantages of testing every kit.

“They can help connect the dots,” she said.

Mass testing of backlogged kits in other parts of the country has yielded promising results, according to the White House press release.

It pointed to 11,000 kits found in an abandoned Detroit police storage unit in 2009, about 2,000 of which had been tested as of this January under a pilot project. It said that testing “resulted in approximately 760 DNA matches and led to the identification of 188 serial offenders and 15 convictions.”

Hobbs said that she knows how important the kits and their testing are to victims and to finding justice for them.

“It can be an important step for getting victims to come forward,” she said.