In 2011 the California Department of Justice (Justice) implemented the Rapid DNA Service (RADS) program. Through the RADS program, Justice’s crime laboratories (crime labs) analyze the evidence contained in all RADS sexual assault evidence kits (RADS kits) associated with sexual assault cases in 39 of the 46 counties to which Justice provides forensic services.
The Difference Between a Standard Sexual Assault Evidence Kit and a RADS Kit
Standard sexual assault evidence kit—A hospital performs an examination of the victim, including taking swabs from the victim’s body and other physical evidence such as clothing, fibers, and hairs, which the hospital stores in a kit and sends to the appropriate law enforcement agency.
RADS kit—The hospital performs the same examination of the victim but then selects up to three swabs most likely to contain a suspect’s DNA profile and sends those directly to one of Justice’s crime labs for analysis. The hospital sends the remainder of the evidence it collected to the law enforcement agency.
Source: National Institute of Justice, the National Center for Victims of Crime, as well as memorandums of understanding between Justice and counties participating in the RADS program.
When someone reports a sexual assault, a local law enforcement agency sends an officer to meet with and take a statement from the victim. If the victim agrees to participate in a sexual assault examination, specially trained health care providers collect biological evidence from the victim’s body and provide medical care to the victim as needed. As part of this examination, health care providers document the biological evidence collected from the victim’s body or clothing. Once the exam is completed, the sexual assault evidence kit is transferred to local law enforcement. The text box describes the difference between a standard sexual assault evidence kit and a RADS kit.
According to the director of Justice’s Bureau of Forensic Services (director of forensic services), Justice is working on increasing the capacity of its RADS labs to accommodate enrolling additional counties in Justice’s service area in the RADS program. Justice developed the RADS program to decrease the time needed to analyze DNA collected in sexual assault evidence kits and increase the number of kits analyzed. Justice’s crime labs analyze each RADS kit in an attempt to obtain a DNA profile from the kit that could identify or confirm the identity of a suspect. If Justice identifies such a profile, it uploads it to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), where the profile is compared to other DNA profiles. Profiles in CODIS come from a variety of sources, including from individuals who have been convicted or arrested for various crimes and profiles associated with unknown suspects.
If a lab confirms that a DNA profile obtained from a sexual assault evidence kit, including a RADS kit, matches another DNA profile within CODIS and the match aids an investigation, it is referred to as a hit. The FBI considers a match to have aided an investigation—and therefore labels it a hit—if it either generates the identity of the suspect or links to an unknown suspect associated with another case. However, the FBI does not track the resolution of investigations and therefore does not know whether a hit was instrumental in obtaining certain case outcomes. As we discuss later in this report, hits sometimes allow law enforcement agencies to obtain outcomes—such as arresting a suspect—but not always. Justice uses a database, the CODIS Hit Outcome Project (CHOP), to notify law enforcement agencies, including RADS participants, about hits and to track information about changes to cases associated with DNA profiles and hits. Once Justice loads a hit into CHOP and one of Justice’s crime labs enters initial crime data, CHOP notifies the responsible law enforcement agency about the hit, which, when retrieved by the law enforcement agency, could include the suspect’s name.
Justice has also established areas in the CHOP system that law enforcement agencies and district attorneys should use to enter information regarding the outcomes of the sexual assault case investigations and, if applicable, prosecutions for the cases associated with hits. For example, for each hit, a law enforcement agency should report whether it investigated the case, whether it made an arrest, and whether it submitted the case to the district attorney for prosecution. The district attorney should then report on the outcomes related to the prosecution of cases that law enforcement submitted, such as whether it filed charges against a suspect and whether the suspect was convicted.
Justice provides forensic services to 46 counties that make up its service area, including the 39 that participate in the RADS program, because they lack access to their own crime labs. The remaining 12 counties in the State are served by city, county, or federal crime labs and therefore do not typically use Justice’s forensic services or participate in the RADS program. According to the director of forensic services, Justice provides the RADS program to participating counties at no cost to the county and pays for it using funds from both the State’s General Fund and the DNA Identification Fund. Figure 1 shows the counties currently participating in the RADS program (RADS counties) and the location of the Justice crime labs that test sexual assault evidence kits for the RADS program. According to information provided by the director of forensic services, the program tests approximately 1,200 RADS kits a year at an estimated cost of about $1.9 million annually.
39 Counties Currently Participate in the RADS Program
Source: Analysis of Justice’s RADS program documentation, Justice’s Bureau of Forensic Services website, and interviews with staff at Justice.
Note: Alameda participated in the RADS program from May 2014 until July 2015. According to a criminalist manager at Justice, during that time, Justice assisted Alameda in establishing its own rapid DNA service.
* These counties are within Justice’s service area and law enforcement agencies in those counties generally do not have access to their own crime lab. According to the director of forensic services, Justice is working to increase the capacity of its RADS labs to accommodate enrolling additional counties in the RADS program.
The Debate Over Untested Sexual Assault Evidence Kits
As stated earlier, Justice developed the RADS program to decrease the time needed to analyze DNA collected in sexual assault evidence kits and increase the number of kits analyzed. Although the RADS program ensures that all RADS kits are analyzed by a crime lab, agencies that do not receive forensic services from Justice or to which Justice has not yet provided the RADS program, may not analyze all sexual assault evidence kits. Outside of the RADS program, when a hospital completes a sexual assault examination, it typically sends the sexual assault evidence kit to the appropriate law enforcement agency, where investigators decide whether to send the kit to a crime lab for analysis. As discussed in our October 2014 report, there are several reasons why law enforcement may choose not to submit a sexual assault evidence kit for analysis. Those reasons include that the investigators reached a final conclusion that no crime occurred, assembled sufficient evidence to arrest a suspect and present the case to the district attorney for prosecution without the DNA analysis, did not continue the investigation because the victim chose not to participate, or determined that testing the kit would not be helpful to the investigation because the suspect acknowledged that there was sexual contact but claimed that it was consensual.
However, some argue that all sexual assault evidence kits should be tested because victims who participate in an invasive examination should feel assured that the evidence they provide will be used to prosecute their attackers. Those who argue for this approach also highlight the fact that the evidence in a kit could influence the outcome of other cases because agencies using CODIS can link a suspect in one case to multiple investigations if the suspect’s DNA profile is already in CODIS. Concerns over untested sexual assault evidence kits have resulted in proposed legislation to change state law, which currently gives individual law enforcement agencies the discretion to decide what kits they send to a crime lab for analysis. The proposed change would require that, for all sexual assault evidence kits, California law enforcement agencies either submit the kits directly to a lab for testing or ensure that a program is in place for the medical facilities conducting the sexual assault examinations to submit the kits to a lab for testing. As of the date of this report, none of these proposals have become law. In September 2018 the former Governor vetoed a bill that would have required that all sexual assault evidence kits be submitted to a crime lab for testing. The former Governor stated that he vetoed the bill to allow time to gauge the effects of two other measures he approved that year. The first of these measures was a bill requiring that law enforcement agencies and facilities that may have sexual assault evidence kits—such as hospitals—conduct an audit of all untested sexual assault evidence kits in their possession and submit a report to Justice by July 2019. The report must include, among other information, the total number of kits, the dates they were collected, and the reasons for not testing them. Justice must then submit a report to the Legislature by July 2020 summarizing the information it receives. The second measure was contained in the Budget Act of 2018 and allocated $6.5 million for Justice to support the testing of sexual assault evidence kits, including the option for Justice to administer a grant program to local government agencies. The Budget Act requires that grant recipients provide a dollar‑for‑dollar match to the grant funds they are awarded, and requires Justice to prioritize grants for eliminating existing backlogs of untested kits. In December 2018, a member of the Legislature introduced a bill that would require that all sexual assault evidence kits be submitted to a crime lab for testing, which remains pending as of the date of this report.
In our October 2014 report, we concluded that the extent of the benefits of testing all sexual assault evidence kits was unknown. Research conducted since we issued our original audit report has largely focused on evaluations of projects in two cities, Detroit and Houston, which have recently made efforts to test sexual assault evidence kits that were previously untested. Some of this research evaluated the frequency with which testing previously untested kits generated additional hits. The results of these evaluations show that testing previously untested kits resulted in additional hits, with 29 percent of the untested kits generating hits in one evaluation. However, little information is available regarding how frequently those hits ultimately led to arrests or convictions for the specific cases that the kits were associated with or other cases that have a DNA profile in common with the original case. Similarly, other states, including Colorado and Florida, have passed laws requiring that law enforcement agencies in those states test all sexual assault evidence kits. However, we were unable to identify the extent to which any additional hits that resulted from these new laws furthered the investigation or prosecution of sexual assault cases.
During our previous audit, we recognized that because of its RADS program, Justice was uniquely positioned to provide more insight into the benefits associated with testing all sexual assault evidence kits. Having Justice track the case outcomes and the frequency with which the hits generated through the RADS program furthered the investigation or prosecution of sexual assault cases could aid the State in making decisions about whether to require statewide testing of all sexual assault evidence kits. Therefore, in our previous report we recommended that Justice require RADS counties to report this information for the sexual assault evidence kits Justice has analyzed under the program. We further recommended that Justice report annually to the Legislature about those case outcomes. That recommendation is the subject of this follow‑up audit.