A recent audit of New Mexico law enforcement agencies uncovered 5,406 untested rape kits, some dating back to the 1980s.
The audit results, released in December by the New Mexico Office of the State Auditor, marked the first time the state had tallied the number of untested rape kits, which contain physical evidence of alleged sexual crimes, according to a statement issued by the office.
“The majority are from the last decade, but the oldest date back to the 1980s,” Justine Freeman, spokesperson for the Office of the State Auditor, told Rewire. She said the next step will be identifying agencies to audit with the goal of reviewing internal controls and identifying best practices to avert future buildups of untested rape kits.
Authorities intend to enter rape kit test results into the nation’s criminal DNA database, New Mexico Department of Public Safety Secretary Greg Fouratt said in the statement.
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The backlog of untested rape kits is a national problem of unknown scale.
A media investigation in 2015 that uncovered about 70,000 untested kits from more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide noted the numbers likely represent only a fraction of the total number of untested rape kits. The true number of untested rape kits is thought to reach as high as the hundreds of thousands.
“Bringing transparency to the backlog,” New Mexico State Auditor Tim Keller said in the statement, “is a first step towards fixing this issue, which is critical to survivors and our public safety.”
Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, according to the advocacy group Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, with about one in three allegations of rape ever reported to police. The statute of limitations in some states requires the prosecution of sexual crimes in as little as three to six years, as Vox recently reported.
Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a victims’ rights group, said to Public News Service that allowing evidence of a sex crime to sit untested sends a “message to survivors that their cases don’t matter or that what happened to them doesn’t matter. And when we do test them, we turn that around, and we affirm the survivor’s account of what happened, and we take dangerous offenders off the street.”
A 2013 federal law to improve how police departments handle rape kits has not been implemented, despite the urging of advocates and some lawmakers. The Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act was passed to help law enforcement agencies determine the number of rape kits sitting, untested, in police storage units.
The Obama administration has failed to implement the law.
Some states have taken action. A Maryland law passed last year requires law enforcement agencies to conduct an inventory of the rape kits backlogged in storage facilities. The Ohio legislature in 2014 passed a similar law to clear its backlog of untested rape kits.
The state budget proposed by New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) calls for additional funds to address criminal case backlogs at state forensic labs, as Public News Service reported.