Studying untested rape kits helps improve investigative efforts

Working with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office (CCPO), researchers at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University have developed a series of research briefs analyzing data from untested sexual assault kits.

The research findings show that serial sexual offenders are more common than previously thought, and that testing unsubmitted, backlogged sexual assault kits can allow communities to save money while keeping offenders off the streets.

The Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force, a collaborative initiative led by a select team of prosecutors, investigators, victim-advocates and individuals from the Cleveland Police Department, Attorney General’s office and Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, is in the process of working through the unsubmitted kits. The backlogged kits date from 1993 to 2010, a time span which covers the initial Ohio Statute of Limitations.

According to Rachel Lovell,  Senior Research Associate at the Begun Center, there were initially almost 5,000 untested rape kits from the 1993 to 2010, in addition to 1,867 kits that were incompletely tested. The task force, as of now, is approximately halfway through what it believes will be a six-year project to go through the kits.

“The [backlogged] kits are just a symptom of much larger issues with the way that our system has dealt with sexual assaults, and sort of this gendered bias in the system as it relates,” said Lovell. “The fact that this many number of kits … would exist tells us that there’s something wrong with the system.”

Lovell makes the analogy that the issue at hand is similar to how conveyer belts function in a factory.

“If there’s any hiccup, or if there’s any problem …[investigators] can’t keep going, and they can’t go into more depth because there’s more kits coming along,” said Lovell. “You’re going to find [this] in jurisdictions where the crime is high and resources are low.”

The researchers have found that fully-resourced investigative units can turn out a high level of convictions, which would also hold serial offenders accountable for their actions and keep them from re-offending and potentially hurting more people.

“It’s not like these cases are unwinnable. It’s not like these cases are just throwaway cases,” Lovell said.

In fact, by testing unsubmitted sexual assault kits, and by thoroughly investigating the cases and prosecuting them in a timely manner, research shows that communities can save millions of dollars.

“No amount of money could make up for what happened to these victims, no dollar amount,” said Lovell. “But at the end of the day, there’s many things that our money needs to go [towards].”

Lovell believes that the conclusions from the research justify the cost of going back through unsubmitted kits and directing attention to serious, repeat offenders.

“We read these horrific stories stories of very intimate trauma that happened to the victims, and ultimately, my goal is to bring [them] to light,” Lovell said. “For a multitude of reasons, our systems didn’t do right by them, but we’re going to do something … now.”

The research, according to Lovell, is intended to help the CCPO make systemic change that will improve the way sexual assault cases are handled, investigated and prosecuted. The efforts in Cuyahoga County can also serve as a model for other law enforcement entities seeking to launch similar initiatives.

The researchers at the Begun Center are planning to continue to work through and code various samples of data from the untested kits, which will help to create a holistic understanding of the issue.

“We only have one story, but we want to expand it out to many more so we have a better understanding of how to fix the system from a larger perspective,” Lovell said.