Data Brief: Rape Kit Backlog – What We Do and Don’t Know

BacklogThe first step to solving the rape kit backlog crisis is to understand the actual extent of the problem. Unfortunately, decades of badly-kept records, unclear legislation, and a lack of transparency has made discerning the exact amount of “backlogged” kits in the state of Illinois difficult. In 2015, the Accountability Project, an initiative by the Joyful Heart Foundation to uncover the number of untested rape kits in jurisdictions across the United States, issued public record requests to bring the number of untested kits in Illinois to light. While they received responses from police departments in Urbana, Springfield, and Champaign, they have “not yet received complete data from Chicago.”

Following this, there was a July 2016 law requiring an annual statewide audit of rape kits. Additionally, per this law, the Illinois State Police (ISP) is required to provide quarterly reports on the number of sexual assault cases submitted and processed by law enforcement agencies. These quarterly reports are available on the ISP’s “Forensics Sciences” command section of their website and constitute the bulk of our analysis. It’s important to note that these reports, while useful for understanding the delays occurring at the forensic lab, only tell us about the second “bottleneck” in the system, which is the timeframe for when rape kits submitted by  police departments are actually processed by the lab.

The second part of our analysis concerns the first bottleneck in the system, which occurs when rape kits are collected and booked into evidence but are not immediately sent to a lab for testing. Illinois law requires that law enforcement agencies submit every newly collected rape kit for testing within 10 days. While we are unable to verify this given our limited data, we do have access to the case statuses of all sexual assault and domestic violence incidents reported to the Chicago Police Department from 2000 to 2020. We use this, along with the ISP data, to estimate the percentage of victims who authorize the submission of their rape kits for processing.

Analyzing both of these datasets, we try and answer  (1) How large is the backlog for Chicago and for the state of Illinois in general; (2) What has happened to the backlog in the last 4 years and other trends; and (3) What percentage of rape victims who report their cases to the police then authorize the submission of their kits for processing?  Are all of these kits being tested? Finally, we make some recommendations to both the Illinois State Police and Chicago Police Department on how to be more transparent with their data.

About the Data

As of Quarter 1 of 2017, the ISP’s Division of Forensic Services Forensic Sciences Command has put out laboratory statistics reports for each quarter. These reports show the number of assignments created and completed along with those waiting analysis and those that have been outsourced. The data includes all assignments along with those specific to sexual assault/abuse, which this brief focuses on. As shown from the example except below (Figure 1), the total amount of cases received by the ISP is also itemized by the actual lab where analysis was completed. For this, we assume that the Forensic Science Center at Chicago (FSC-C) is where all rape case kits coming from the Chicago Police Department are sent.

Figure 1

Rape Kit

Because of inconsistencies in the way ISP reports its data, we are required to make a few assumptions for our analysis. First, starting in 2019, the ISP began reporting Forensic Biology and DNA activities as one combined section called “Biology.” For the purposes of this report, we also use the “Biology” numbers for submissions, backlog, and completed analysis, which consists of adding together the “Forensic Biology” (FB) and “DNA” numbers. However, FB and DNA cases are not mutually exclusive as a sexual assault kit swab will first be screened for biological material and then undergo DNA analysis if sufficient biological material is found. For this reason, comparison between past case figures and current assignment figures are difficult because a single case may consist of multiple assignments. In 2019, the ISP implemented an efficiency measure called the “Direct to DNA” approach, which eliminates the step of screening for biological material on certain types of evidence. This has resulted in there being a lot more DNA cases than FB cases, although we still use the combined “Biology” numbers for the purpose of consistency.

Another inconsistency in the data reporting is the definition of “backlog.” As stated in a 2019 DNA Accountability report, the ISP now defines backlog as any unfinished assignment (i.e., work requested on a case) in a section, regardless of when it was submitted. In previous years, the backlog was defined as unfinished cases (in-progress or un-started) in the section for more than 30 days. While we prefer this newer, more inclusive definition of backlogged, we still refer to a “backlogged” case as one that is awaiting analysis for at least 30 days, for the sake of consistency. We also separately analyze all cases awaiting analysis to see how that number has changed over the years, controlling for the number of new cases rolling in.

What is the Backlog Currently?

The most available data we have is from Quarter 2 ending in June of 2020. By the end of this quarter, there were 2469 assignments awaiting analysis, with 1131 of those from FSC-C. Of those, 2103 assignments (1004 for FSC-C) can be considered “backlogged.” The breakdown for when the cases were received is shown below. We can observe that the Chicago lab is relatively behind on processing their kits, letting older ones accumulate at a higher proportion than what is occurring in other ISP labs.

Figure 2

Backlog

How Has the Backlog Changed Over Time?

Despite the ISP’s commitment to reduce its forensics backlog, the number of backlogged sexual assault cases has gradually increased from 2017, with a peak of 2700 backlogged assignments at the start of 2019. The backlog now is about 27% higher than it was in in 2017, however it is slightly down from the average of 2195 backlogged assignments.

Figure 3

Rape Kit

Breaking this down by time frame, we can see that there has been an even more dramatic increase in the total number of cases awaiting analysis that have been there for 91-190 days and 181-365 days. While this intuitively makes sense, it calls into question whether kits are being processed in the most efficient manner. Shockingly, in Quarter 2 of 2020, there were 991 cases that were received 6 months ago (548 in Chicago) but not tested and 56 cases received more than a year ago (43 in Chicago) that still have not been tested.

Figure 4

Backlog

Another trend to note is that the proportion of backlogged cases analyzed in the Chicago lab compared to the total has been increasing steadily, despite the number of kits being submitted by the CPD being roughly consistent in this time period. Currently, 46% of the backlog is occurring in FSC-C while it was 23% in 2018. This indicates that the efficiency gains that the ISP’s forensics science department has recently experienced may not necessarily be occurring in the Chicago lab.

What happens when a rape kit is submitted to the CPD?

In response to a FOIA request, we received from the Chicago Police Department the case status for all domestic violence (DV) and sexual assault (SA) cases from 2000-2020. We then compared the total number of CPD cases primarily classified as criminal sexual assault for that same time period to the total number of sexual assault cases submitted by the CPD to the forensics lab for the years 2017 through Quarter 2 of 2020 (as provided by the ISP quarterly reports). Assuming that each of these cases can be treated as individual reports to the police, we can calculate the percentage of rape victims who choose to submit their kits to the lab for analysis.

Figure 5

Rape Kit

Looking at the data, we can see that between 53-63% of victims who report to  the police then authorize to submit their kits for processing. However, this assumes that all kits that victims submit are being sent for testing in a timely manner. Given the CPD’s history in not believing victims of rape and/or not testing all kits, we have reason to doubt the above assumption. Unfortunately, because we lack a public data system that tracks rape kits throughout the process, we are unable to verify whether all kits are being submitted for analysis.

CJP Recommendations for Actionable Transparency

We still do not have the actual average turnaround time for a rape kit, although advocates tell survivors to wait up to 2-years. We do know that the average turnaround time (ATT) for DNA evidence in general is 247 days, although that number is not specific for sexual assault. There are about 3000 cases waiting analysis right now while around an average of a 1000 cases are being processed every quarter. What that means for a victim who has been waiting almost a year for their results is unclear. With this in mind, we strongly urge both the Illinois State Police and the Chicago Police Department to do the following:

For the Illinois State Police

  1. Report the average turnaround time for sexual assault kits, so that victims have the information needed to decide whether or not to submit their tests. This should be relatively simple to do given that the ISP already calculates the ATT for its general biology cases on its website.
  2. Using the data that will be collected from its new tracking system, measure and report the ATT for both steps of the backlog process. This allows victims and advocates to know at exactly what stage the kit is being held up and to pressure the right actor accordingly.
  3. Display this information on a real-time dashboard with anonymized case data. The dashboard would display data on the status of every case, including when it was processed and whether a CODIS hit resulted from it. This would entail a greater collaboration and data-sharing between the Illinois State Police Laboratory and surrounding police departments.

For the Chicago Police Department

  1. Create a database where  sexual assault cases and kits can be tracked throughout the system. This can be published as de-identified case-level data, so that survivors and advocates can see data on the percentage of victims who consent for laboratory analysis, the number of CODIS hits that result from this analysis, the number of arrest rates that follow, and the outcomes once the case enters the legal system.
  2. Create an accountability system to ensure that every CPD detective is submitting their rape kit in a timely manner.
  3. Publish quarterly reports on the status of sexual assault cases, including the number of cases each quarter, the number of tests taken, tests submitted, and average wait times for victims. This data can then be used to better contextualize how the CPD handles sexual assault cases, how SAKs effect the outcomes of sexual assault cases, and what a victim should expect when deciding to submit their kit or not.

Author: Rachel Blume

Rachel is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying Public Policy. Her research areas of interest include child welfare, criminal justice reform, and violence against women.

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