KIYC: NJ has large backlog of untested rape kits, despite state's claim of no backlog

Some advocates say New Jersey’s policy of allowing prosecutors to choose not to test kits, even when victims want them tested, is leaving dangerous criminals on the street.

Walt Kane

Feb 21, 2024, 3:45 AM

Updated 55 days ago

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A Kane In Your Corner investigation finds three out of four rape kits in New Jersey are backlogged, even as state officials claim there is no backlog. And some advocates say New Jersey’s policy of allowing prosecutors to choose not to test kits, even when victims want them tested, is leaving dangerous criminals on the street.
A woman that News 12 will call “Jane” says she will never forget the trauma of being raped by a man she met on a dating app. “I was like, this is bad. This isn't going to stop, is it?” she recalls.
After the assault, Jane went to the hospital to undergo a forensic examination, commonly known as a rape kit. For hours, a nurse swabbed her body, collecting DNA. But Jane says prosecutors deemed the evidence not worth testing.
“She didn't believe she could convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the semen and saliva on my underwear wasn't left there consensually,” Jane says.
Jane isn’t alone. Thousands of rape kits are sitting untested in storage units across New Jersey. It’s happening even as the state insists there is no backlog. Attorney General Matt Platkin made the claim in an interview with Kane In Your Corner in March 2023. A 2018 audit by the Office of Legislative Services reached the same conclusion.
But when Kane In Your Corner analyzed three years of data on rape kit inventories in New Jersey, they found 74% of rape kits – nearly 3 in 4 – take longer than 30 days to test. That’s the definition the federal government uses to classify a kit as “backlogged.” Kane In Your Corner also found New Jersey has a large “hidden backlog” - thousands of kits that never made it to the lab at all because prosecutors opted not to have the evidence tested.
There were 2,092 rape kits that went untested in New Jersey from 2020 to 2022. About a third of those were “hold kits,” meaning the victims did not release them to law enforcement. But the bulk of the untested kits, 1,379 of them, were from survivors who consented to testing.
Kane In Your Corner asked the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General how it could justify its claim that there is no backlog of kits in New Jersey. Patricia Teffenhart, who heads the Division of Violence Intervention and Victim Assistance at NJOAG, says the agency did not accept the federal government’s definition of a kit as backlogged after 30 days but declined to provide a definition of its own.
“I think we have to work on defining what a backlog is in a way that really centers what survivors need, rather than like an arbitrary number, like 30 days,” Teffenhart says.
Many advocates for sex abuse survivors say the federal standard of 30 days was chosen for a reason. “Most victims expect that if they go through this process, that the evidence will be used, that it will be tested to potentially find the person who committed this crime against them,” says Ilse Knecht, director of Policy and Advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation.
That’s what happens in most of the country. Thirty-seven states, plus the District of Columbia require all rape kits released to law enforcement to be tested. New Jersey is one of just 13 that does not. The NJOAG insists not every rape kit should be tested because sometimes DNA evidence just doesn’t matter.
“The kit doesn't tell you whether or not the act was consensual,” Teffenhart says, “so the idea that a kit is going to identify a perpetrator is sort of a misnomer.”
Advocates like Knecht say that this kind of thinking is problematic because it can allow dangerous criminals to remain free. She says even when DNA won’t help solve a particular case, it could solve others. “Acquaintance rapists are often serial rapists,” Knecht says. “So, if we don't test the kits, we're never going to make connections between those cases.”
Knecht points to Wayne County, Michigan, where prosecutors recently tested 11,341 backlogged rape kits. They wound up closing 4,029 cases, identifying 841 serial rapists and putting 239 sex offenders behind bars. She believes New Jersey could get the same kind of results by testing backlogged kits here.
Jane agrees. “I don't see why they wouldn't,” she says. “I'm sure I'm not the only one that he's done this to. And nobody is trying to prevent it. Nobody cares to stop that."
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