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Improving how we collect and share data can help prevent sexual assault

The devasting effects resulting from failure to test sexual assault kits has been heavily documented in the media. Undoubtedly, this breach of trust has caused harm to survivors of sexual assault, our communities, and to the criminal justice system as a whole.

Efforts like the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, are healing this wrong and shining a spotlight on the ability of DNA analysis to solve cases and identify patterns of serial sexual offending. As the leader of the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Training and Technical Assistance Program, RTI is assisting agencies across the nation with the implementation and evaluation of evidence-based practices that support sexual assault reform during Sexual Assault Awareness Month and beyond.

At no other time in U.S. criminal justice history has this volume of sexual assault evidence been tested and the resulting DNA profiles uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). CODIS allows law enforcement agencies to match DNA profiles against local, state, and national databases consisting of DNA profiles from crime scene evidence, convicted offenders, and, where applicable by state law, arrestees. The DNA profiles obtained in crime laboratories across the country and uploaded to CODIS provide our criminal justice system with one of the most effective forensic tools to hold perpetrators accountable. Already, forensic evidence obtained from testing previously unsubmitted sexual assault kits is changing what we know about sexual assault.

Emerging research reveals that more sexual assault perpetrators than previously thought are serial offenders who not only commit multiple sexual assaults but also other violent assaults and homicides. Patterns detected through sexual assault kit testing have revealed that many sexual offenders victimize both people known to them and strangers. Offenders may also target both old and young victims, and vulnerable populations are certainly at a higher risk. These findings prove the value of DNA testing, even when the suspect is known. A known rapist in one case may be an unknown rapist in another case.

As powerful as CODIS is, it is limited by the volume of DNA profiles uploaded. If sexual assault kits are not tested, linkages between cases may not be made, and serial sexual offenders may not be identified. The significant increase in DNA profiles obtained from testing sexual assault kits has expanded the database. However, agencies must ensure that lawfully owed DNA—i.e., samples obtained from convicted offenders or, where applicable by state law, arrested individuals—is effectively collected, tested, and uploaded into CODIS. The potential to match a DNA profile obtained from forensic evidence to a particular offender is realized only when effective policies and practices ensure the timely testing and uploading of both sexual assault kits and lawfully owed DNA into CODIS.

Because of the serial nature of sexual assault, identifying offenders is one of the best ways to prevent future victimization. Jurisdictions across the nation should continuously evaluate their reform efforts and seek opportunities to test unsubmitted sexual assault kits, evaluate their lawfully owed DNA procedures, and address identified issues.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Patricia Melton (Senior Research Forensic Scientist) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.