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Rape Kits

Forensic analyst Karen Gincoo checks a tray of evidence vials from rape kits in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015.

The number of untested rape kits in the United States is still unknown.

As awareness of the huge backlog has grown over the past few years, some states such as Ohio have taken dramatic steps to inventory and test the evidence, which in many cases was collecting dust in a police station or lab somewhere. In January, additional federal resources were committed to testing the backlog, helping states such as West Virginia start trying to catch up.

Early estimates were that the backlog included 140,000 kits in the 27 states from which the Joyful Heart Foundation had data; the totals in many other states are still undetermined. Kentucky recently completed an inventory that identified 3,000 kits, but West Virginia has yet to do a full inventory.

But few states have looked ahead to how this evidence will be handled going forward.

Michigan and Tennessee have set out guidelines, giving law enforcement agencies time limits to submit rape kits for testing, and this year, other states are considering legislation to develop inventories of rape kits and set guidelines on making sure those are tested.

"For someone to have survived a rape, reported it to police, and endured the invasive evidence collection only to have it sit in an evidence room untested - I find that appalling," state Rep. Janet Adkins, a Florida Republican, told the Stateline News Service. She is sponsoring a bill in her state that would require faster testing of new rape kits.

The goal is to get kits tested quickly so the DNA evidence of the likely offender can be placed in the FBI database and compared to the DNA of offenders already in the system or those who might be arrested in the near future. Where this has been done - including a partnership project between the Huntington Police Department and the Marshall University Forensic Science Center - investigators already are finding leads and making arrests.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but the kits have piled up in the past and will likely in the future, because they require experts and some expense. In many investigations, kits were only tested if investigators had a suspect and left on the shelf if they did not.

But building a more comprehensive database provides a whole new means of identifying offenders and preventing further attacks. For example, in the Huntington project, rape evidence from a 2004 case was finally tested and matched DNA evidence from a 2014 Ohio case. Then both cases got a break when a man was arrested in a 2015 incident, and his DNA was a match for the earlier cases.

Every state needs to commit the resources to test their backlog of kits and implement guidelines and time limits to make sure law enforcement has future kits tested in a reasonable time frame. Victims, potential victims and the public deserve that.

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