Editorial: Virginia deserves applause for its work to eliminate a rape kit backlog

NOTHING IS a more powerful symbol of the failure of the criminal justice system to take sexual assault seriously than the tens of thousands of rape kits that languish — untested — in police departments and crime labs across the country. So when authorities undertake to eliminate the existing backlog and prevent future ones, it is a sign of a new approach that prioritizes getting justice for victims and holding offenders accountable. That is what is happening in Virginia, and it should be applauded.

Virginia is in the middle of a $3.4 million program launched two years ago to test an estimated 3,200 sexual-assault evidence kits that have waited, some for decades, on police shelves. The kits contain evidence such as samples of blood and semen that can be tested for DNA. The first phase, funded from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s $38 million initiative to tackle testing in more than 20 states, focused on kits collected prior to 2014. Of the 2,000 kits, more than 1,000 have so far been sent to the state lab, with results on 450 kits. There have been at least 44 matches to known profiles in the Combined DNA Index System database. No arrests or prosecutions have come from those hits, but the cases will be referred back to local law enforcement for further investigation, and the inclusion in the database may help in identifying serial rapists.

The second phase, announced this month by Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), will use a $2 million federal grant to deal with kits from between 2014 and 2016. “We’re keeping up the momentum on this project. I’m not going to stop until every single kit gets tested, survivors know the result and each case gets a fresh look,” said Mr. Herring. Going forward from 2016, there should be no backlog of cases because Virginia last year enacted new rules governing the collection, storage and analysis of rape kits.

Virginia’s push for testing is part of a national effort that has highlighted the value of the kits as well as the indignity suffered by rape victims who submit to an invasive exam only to see the potential evidence collect dust. First lady Dorothy McAuliffe, who helped lead a state task force that led to testing reforms and new supports for victims, said victims of sexual assault can now feel more confident about reporting their assaults to police. “The work,” she said, “is making a difference.”

This editorial appeared in the Washington Post.