Imagine being robbed and finding out that, despite reporting it to police and turning over pictures and serial numbers for your TV and your laptop, the report sat on a shelf and waited for an investigation that never happened.
Imagine being shot and discovering that the bullet was in an evidence bag but no one ever examined it.
For years, that was the truth of rape kits in Pennsylvania. Rapes were reported. Kits were collected. And then they just sat.
At its peak, the backlog of untested rape kits in Pennsylvania was more than 3,200 deep, according to Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
That’s not just boxes on a shelf. It’s not just files in a computer or folders in a cabinet.
That is 3,200 or so people who had a piece of themselves stolen, thousands of people traumatized by a wound hard to overcome, but who still had the strength to report the incident and subject themselves to the new indignity of being scraped and swabbed for the test.
And that is why it is laudable that the state police crime labs and the Philadelphia police forensic unit have been able to whittle that backlog down to just 339 over the course of three years.
What is sad is that 28% of those are in our backyard. The Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office forensic crime lab has 94.
This is not to say that Allegheny County isn’t pulling its weight or treating the rape kits with the respect that the reports deserve. DePasquale acknowledged the progress made, with the county cutting that number from 206 a year ago, and the remaining kits are on track to be tested within months.
But backlogs are only part of the story of rape kits. The backlogs are kits that have sat on those shelves for at least a year. And backlogs exist because of the other crimes that continue to happen, moving older crimes further and further to the back of the line.
That pile of kits that represented years of reported violence and trauma has been bulldozed, but it could easily build back up again if the amount of resources and attention devoted to it after DePasquale uncovered it is allowed to be whittled away.
Pennsylvania has to continue to make processing rape kits a priority, whether there is a horrific backlog of undone work or not.