By Martin Macias Jr.
SACRAMENTO – California Department of Justice officials did not fully comply with requests that data from rape evidence kits be reported to prosecutors in order to demonstrate the benefits of fully clearing test backlogs, the state auditor said Thursday.
The testing kits – which crime labs and law enforcement agencies use to examine victims or suspects after a sexual assault incident – may contain DNA evidence that can assist in the investigation of sexual assault cases.
A 2014 state audit found that while concerns loomed over the massive backlogs of untested kits, the benefits of mandating the testing of all evidence kits was unknown or not clearly articulated to law enforcement agencies.
The audit also recommended state agencies that come into contact with evidence kits report case outcome information – such as whether an arrest was made or someone was prosecuted – to demonstrate the benefits of clearing test backlogs.
State auditor Elaine Howle said Thursday in a letter to lawmakers that the California Justice Department was told in 2014 that it was “uniquely positioned” to provide case outcome data because it collects and tests evidence kits in 39 counties through its Rapid DNA Service program.
Howle said that while the department did set up a system for law enforcement agencies to report case outcome data, not all agencies in the state were asked to report and few law enforcement staff were trained on how to submit data.
The department failed to collect outcome data in 67 percent of the 417 cases submitted in the Rapid DNA Service program between April 2015 and March 2018, Howle said.
“As a result, it has failed to provide valuable information that the state can use to determine the extent of the benefits of testing all sexual assault evidence kits,” Howle wrote, adding the lack of reporting has left prosecutors empty-handed in some sexual assault investigations.
But the breakdown in data sharing also came from district attorneys who, after receiving information from law enforcement agencies, only reported in 17 cases whether they charged a suspect with a crime and said in only four cases whether the suspect was convicted.
The state Justice Department has also failed to follow up with law enforcement agencies that haven’t reported case outcome information, further depriving lawmakers of valuable information that could shape state policies.
If the Legislature requires test backlogs cleared, it should require law enforcement agencies to report case outcome data to the department, Howle wrote, adding that if state law isn’t amended, the department should collect case outcome data and summarize in annual reports.
A department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the audit’s findings.
Barry Miller, the department’s forensic services director, said in an audit response that while the audit pointed out areas in need of improvement, the department contends it complied with the 2014 recommendations.
“DOJ agrees that there can be clarification and better training for participants who need to input case outcome information,” Miller wrote. “However, because of program changes and responsibilities to other enacted legislation, the recommendations cannot be implemented without additional program support for DOJ’s already strained resources.”
The audit flagged the lack of funding as a significant barrier in investigations and prosecutions of sexual assault cases – even when rape evidence kits are tested.
Kits contain swabs and other materials used to preserve evidence from a victim’s body after an attack and can cost from $500 to $1,500 to test.
Thursday audit did not indicate how many untested kits remained backlogged across the Golden State. The Joyful Heart Foundation, which tracks rape kit backlogs across the United States, estimated in 2018 that 13,000 kits remain untested in the state.
The San Diego police chief said in January that her department is wading through a backlog of 558 untested rape kits but will not test every kit in its crime lab.
The Los Angeles Police Department received a $1 million National Institute of Justice grant in April 2018 to clear a backlog of over 500 investigations awaiting DNA testing.
DNA testing rekindled the national spotlight on backlogs when in April 2018 Joseph James DeAngelo, suspected of being the so-called Golden State Killer, was arrested on charges of committing 12 murders and 45 rapes throughout California in the 1970s and 1980s.
According to prosecutors, DeAngelo’s DNA sample linked him to as many as 175 crimes spanning two decades across the state.