Most rape kits stuck in lab backlog
Five of nine local kits, 36 from North Country State Police remain untested
Since the start of 2017, the Saranac Lake and Lake Placid village police departments have sent nine sexual assault evidence kits — commonly known as rape kits — to the State Police forensics lab in Albany. Five of them, more than half, still remain untested.
This is because a backlog of hundreds of rape kits has been building up at the only forensics lab that tests them for the majority of the state.
Data acquired using the Freedom of Information Law shows she backlog is also holding up testing for 36 of the 60 kits collected by State Police Troop B in the North Country — a dozen of which date back to 2018.
Each of these tests represents a person who claims to have been sexually assaulted and wants to press charges. Lake Placid Assistant Police Chief Chuck Dobson said for those waiting on results, the delay can be discouraging.
“We’ve definitely had cases where victims or victims’ families have been frustrated with the wait,” Dobson said.
The kits from local and State Police are waiting to be processed by a state lab in Albany, which, according to an audit conducted by the state comptroller office’s Division of State Government Accountability in May, is going through an 88% backlog in testing of sexual assault kits statewide.
In the North Country, there is at least a 72% backlog in kits waiting to be tested past their required date.
The comptroller’s office estimates it will take two years to clear this up and start operating at the 90-day limit regularly, at least, with the lab’s current staffing levels.
Franklin County District Attorney Craig Carriero said he can prosecute a sex crime without a test result if the county has a strong case otherwise, but a test can conclusively confirm — or exonerate — a suspect.
“Obviously, you want as strong a case as you can,” Carriero said. “A lot of cases are investigated but then they go cold for a period of time. Sometimes we have to wait until something else comes up, another witness appears or new evidence is developed.”
But he also said when progress is made in a case — like if an arrest is made or court date is set — State Police have been good at fast-tracking tests and moving them up in the queue.
“They have to prioritize with the amount of resources they have,” Lake Placid’s Dobson said.
He said if an arrest has been made, or if a grand jury or trial is pending, those cases take priority. Cases where no arrest has been made are lower priority.
“It’s always taken a long time,” Dobson said. “We’re used to a certain amount of waiting.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m disparaging the State Police lab,” he added, “because, you know, they offer these services for free to assist agencies like us, and it’s invaluable for them to provide that service.”
Progress led to backlog
Sexual assault kit testing has been a prevalent issue throughout the U.S. In 2009 a county prosecutor in Detroit found that her area had 11,000 untested kits sitting around. Around the country it is estimated that there are around 100,000 kits awaiting testing.
Tests are needed as evidence in cases, and their absence can delay trials. They are also used to create DNA files on convicted sex offenders, which can stop repeat assaults.
In 2016 the state passed an executive law to attempt to clear this backlog, mandating that law enforcement agencies turn in all the untested kits they had lying in limbo. But the backlog has just moved locations.
In 2017 the Forensic Investigation Center in Albany, which conducts tests on rape kits for the entire state except New York City, received record numbers of kits, three times the number received the year before. The comptroller’s audit says the number of kits submitted annually has been “steadily increasing.”
Another amendment passed that year requires kits received before February 2017 to be finalized within 210 days — about seven months — of receipt by the state lab, while kits received after then must be processed within 90 days.
However, the state comptroller office’s audit in May showed the lab was not meeting compliance with that 90-day requirement.
“They’re good at what they do. They probably just need some more resources,” Dobson said of the lab. “The money has got to come from somewhere. … They’re the only show in town … where they offer this service to smaller agencies.”
Dobson said there are other commercial options, but those are “extremely expensive.” He said the state offers a “huge help” through the use of its lab.
North Country numbers
Data from the State Police shows the Lake Placid Police Department submitted two kits in 2018 and one in 2020. Two of these three remain untested. The Saranac Lake Police Department submitted four kits in 2017, one in 2018 and one in 2019. Three of those six remain untested.
Of the four tested kits from Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, none was completed within the state-mandated time frame.
State Police Acting Records Access Officer Capt. William Gorman said a search of their files did not turn up any records for kits submitted by the Franklin County or Essex County sheriff’s departments, or the Tupper Lake Police Department.
In 2018, 2019 and 2020, a total of 60 kits from State Police Troop B were sent to the lab. Of these, 36 are untested — 12 from 2018, 14 from 2019 and 10 from 2020 — according to data acquired in July.
Of the 24 kits tested from these three years, 12 were tested within the 90-day requirement.
In 2017 only six of the 45 kits turned in were tested within 90 days, and 12 were tested within 210 days.
Data for 2016 and 2015, shows seven and 13 kits turned in, respectively, with none left untested.
Improvements and problems
From 2018 to 2019, the FIC lab increased the number of kits it completed by 64%.
“However, despite agency efforts, there is still a significant backlog,” the comptroller’s office audit says.
The FIC hired more employees and created more lab space for processing these kits. It also developed a more streamlined testing method — screening for male DNA (Y-chromosomes) — which decreased testing time by 79% and is more accurate, according to State Police.
It used to take an average of 133.7 days to process a kit. This has now dropped to 27.5 days. However, this is based on the date the processing begins, not on when the FIC receives the kit.
The average number of days between the FIC receiving a kit and an analyst beginning processing is 235.6. Factoring in that time, the total time to process a kit dropped from 369.3 days to 263.1 days.
There are also paperwork and data management issues holding up testing.
“Prior to the enactment of the Executive Law, there was no uniform tracking of kits at the local, state or federal levels, and this lack of information meant the FIC could not accurately anticipate the number of kits it would receive in response to the new requirements,” the audit states.
State Police leaders, in a letter responding to the comptroller’s office, said that a lack of information and poor documentation by police agencies for kits collected before this executive law has made processing the kits difficult.
“The required paperwork submitted with many kits lacked any detail about the case or included vague and conclusory assertions suggesting no crime was committed,” State Police Superintendent Keith Corlett wrote in a response to the audit.
Within 180 days of the release of the audit, the State Police superintendent is required to speak to the governor, the state comptroller and legislature to report what steps were taken to implement the comptroller’s recommendation and, if the recommendation was not implemented, the reasons why. This report will be due by the end of November.