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Editorial: Eliminate backlog of untested rape kits in Cook County

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

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Updated: May 6, 2013 6:23AM

Police investigate a reported sexual assault not just to solve one crime, but also to prevent others.

That’s why it’s disturbing to learn of yet another case in which rape kits — which include forensic evidence from reported assaults — were found languishing in storage without being processed. It’s part of a larger problem in which kits at various police departments around the county remained untested. All of the kits — except for those few that don’t meet state guidelines — should be sent to the Illinois State Police promptly for processing.

In the most recent incident, untested kits were found in south suburban Robbins after Cook County sheriff’s police arrived to help with a backlog of investigations into homicides and other crimes. They found 51 kits dating back to 1986 in an evidence room.

That may be just the tip of the iceberg. More than 500 kits throughout the county remain untested despite a 2010 law that requires processing in every case, except those not connected with a crime, as when a victim recants. Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart rightly said he would work with the departments to make sure they understand the criteria and that every kit is handled according to the law. “The victims should know they will have their cases heard, and they will be treated like they should have been treated,” Dart said.

Yet, backlogs of rape kits keep happening. Chicago cleared up its own backlog a decade ago. In 2007, 200 untested kits were found in Harvey. In 2011, the State Police took on a backlog of more than 4,000 kits around the state and has whittled it to 571.

Collecting the swabs, fibers, hair, blood and clothing samples and other evidence that goes into a rape kit is invasive and humiliating for a victim. No one experiencing that ordeal would want to think the evidence would be shoved into a storage area and forgotten.

When kits are tested, about one in five matches the DNA profile of a known offender. That makes the kits an effective law-enforcement tool. It’s frustrating to think crimes may have gone unsolved or additional crimes were committed because of an untested rape kit.

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