For years, rape kits piled up in Houston. Thousands and thousands of swaps, running back almost 30 years, sat untested. Victims heard nothing. Perpetrators went on with their lives and, in some cases, committed further crimes. Eventually, there were nearly 6,700 kits waiting to be processed.
Then, in 2013, Mayor Annise Parker launched a push to test the kits. The results are stunning: Tests turned up 850 matches in the FBI's national DNA database. Prosecutors have charged 29 people and obtained six convictions so far. Of course, the delay was costly: As the Harris County prosecutor noted, suspects in some cases committed other crimes, even as the untested kits that could have convicted them sat untested—including at least six further rapes. (Given a national backlog of rape kits, there might be even more.)
Houston's test result is good news, and it's the latest in a slow revolution in how authorities are handling rape kits. In 2014, Memphis, Tennessee, began moving to process a 12,000-kit backlog. An especially egregious case was Detroit, which discovered some 11,000 kits in an abandoned police facility in 2009 but has since begun an ambitious effort to solve the problem. While testing on those kits has proceeded slowly, it has already identified 100 serial rapists, according to prosecutors. In 2014, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a law establishment timelines for rape-kit testing. Cleveland has sent 4,700 kits for testing. Las Vegas has 4,000. There's no definitive number, but estimates of the number of untested kits, nationwide, range from at least 100,000 to 400,000. Manhattan had a 17,000-kit backlog that it began clearing in 2000, yielding dozens of convictions as well as connections to other assaults in New York's other boroughs.