Protecting the public is one of the most basic functions of government. Nearly a year ago, the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) released the first-ever statewide audit of untested sexual assault evidence kits, commonly known as “rape kits.” We worked with law enforcement agencies and sexual assault victim advocates to determine why a backlog of 5,440 untested kits amassed in New Mexico and to develop best practices to clear it and prevent it from happening again.
In New Mexico, one in four women and one in 20 men have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime, and 65 percent of sexual assault victims are minors. Although rape kit backlogs are unfortunately common throughout the country, New Mexico has the highest per capita backlog.
Clearing the rape kit backlog is a critical way to identify repeat offenders, put offenders behind bars and honor survivors who have come forward. Since we shined a light on the magnitude of the rape kit backlog, we have seen some progress on a number of levels.
Of the more than 5,000 untested kits, about 75 percent of those would ordinarily be tested in the City of Albuquerque’s Forensic Lab. The remaining kits from other local law enforcement agencies and the State Police would ordinarily be tested at the Department of Public Safety (DPS) Forensic Lab in Santa Fe.
In the last year, DPS has started testing kits at an outstanding rate and expects to test all of the backlog kits from across the state in less than two years. As of last month, DPS had tested 604 rape kits, resulting in 72 matches in the national DNA database. Albuquerque is not yet testing its backlog of kits and as new assaults occur, the number that needs to be tested is increasing every month. However, Albuquerque was recently awarded a $2.5 million federal grant to help clear the backlog and has set aside $1 million of its budget toward the effort.
We are gratified to see progress in motion. But let’s not forget that the rape kit backlog is and has always been a question of priorities. Each one of those kits represents a survivor who has been waiting for justice. Each one of those kits represents an offender who may still be out on the streets. We owe it to the safety of everyone in our state to completely clear the rape kit backlog, to support the sexual assault service providers who are an essential partner in these efforts, and to make sure this never happens again.