Public Knowledge and Perceptions About Unsubmitted and Untested Sexual Assault Kits

Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Public Knowledge and
Perceptions About
Unsubmitted and Untested
Sexual Assault Kits
Gillian M. Pinchevsky
and William H. Sousa
Large numbers of unsubmitted and untested sexual assault kits have been uncovered across the
country. Although increased criminal justice, empirical, and legislative attention have been given
to better understanding this issue, the extent to which the public is aware of unsubmitted and
untested kits and how the public feels about the subject has not been explored. Assessing the pub-
lics knowledge of this topic is important considering that public awareness of criminal justice issues
can ultimately inf‌luence policy decisions. This study, therefore, explores the publicsknowledge and
perceptions about the issue of unsubmitted and untested sexual assault kits. We found that roughly
74% of the sample had heard of the term sexual assault kit,and a little over half (60%) of those
persons were aware of the magnitude of the issue surrounding unsubmitted and untested kits. Few
(30%) respondents who were aware of the problem knew that it was an issue in their own com-
munities. Further, the public was generally supportive of testing kits and saw the utility of kits,
but nuances in the data emerged.
untested sexual assault kits, unsubmitted sexual assault kits, community perceptions
The existence of unsubmitted (i.e., not yet submitted to a crime lab) and untested (i.e., submitted to a
lab but not yet tested) sexual assault kits (SAKs) across the country continues to gain national media
and research attention. The most recent research on the estimated number of unsubmitted kits sug-
gests that between 300,000 and 400,000 kits had not been submitted for testing in the United States as
of the mid-to-late 2010s (Strom et al., 2021). Certainly, as pointed out by Strom et al. (2021), the
number of unsubmitted SAKs in the United States is not a static f‌igure(p. 7), and since there is no
nationwide requirement placed on jurisdictions to collect this information, these estimates may
change with additional census count efforts in jurisdictions and more research. Still, the sheer
University of Nevada Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV, USA
Corresponding Author:
Gillian M. Pinchevsky, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 4505 S. Maryland Parkway, Box 455009, Las Vegas, NV 89154, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2022, Vol. 47(4) 464-483
© 2021 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/07340168211043069
number of unsubmitted and untested kits is jarring when considering that a person and a trauma lives
behind each of those kits.
The number of unsubmitted and untested SAKs across the country has prompted signif‌icant
reforms to how jurisdictions and state entities respond to these issues. For example, since 2015,
the Bureau of Justice Assistance has awarded millions of dollars to individual jurisdictions and
entire states through its sexual assault kit initiative (SAKI) to collect a census of the number of
SAKs that exist, reduce the number of unsubmitted and untested SAKs, improve sexual assault
investigations and prosecutions, and develop an infrastructure to prevent any future accumulation
of unsubmitted and untested kits. Further, national and local media outlets have published numer-
ous news stories on the issue of unsubmitted and untested kits and organizations such as the Joyful
Heart Foundation (and their initiative,, and the Human Rights Watch have
brought current news to the general public. Given the impact of the media on the publics under-
standing of social issuesincluding issues related to sexual violence (e.g., Katz-Schiavone et al.,
2008; Proctor et al., 2002) it is important to better understand the messages received by the
Currently, it is unclear how the general public views the issue of unsubmitted and untested SAKs
and how the increased coverage impacts public perceptions surrounding the criminal justice systems
response to victims of sexual assault. However, it is appropriate to wonder whether the uncovering of
so many kits could spark discussion about system-wide reform. Public perceptions have the potential
to impact policies and practices in the criminal justice system, and public perceptions about the
system and system responses could potentially have signif‌icant implications for the likelihood of
wanting to participate in and/or supporting the criminal justice system (see, generally, Marion &
Oliver, 2012).
As a result, we aimed to assess community knowledge and perceptions about unsubmitted
and untested SAKs. This exploratory study relied on a sample of 768 United States citizens (ages
18 +with internet access) surveyed through Qualtrics in late 2017. We oversampled participants
residing in one state that received state-wide SAKI funding (Nevada) and then conducted a
random sample of U.S. residents across the country.
Sexual Assault Kits
Jurisdictions across the country have uncovered large numbers of previously unsubmitted and
untested SAKs. Recent estimates suggest that between 300,000 and 400,000 kits were not submitted
as of the mid-to-late 2010s (Strom et al., 2021). These estimates may change as jurisdictions conduct
additional counts and research continues in this area.
The discovery of so many previously unsubmitted kits is problematic for a number of reasons.
First, it ref‌lects both justice delayedand justice denied(Strom & Hickman, 2010) to victims
of sexual assault, who often undergo medical exams with forensic evidence collection with the
hopes and expectations that the evidence will help hold a perpetrator accountable (Du Mont et al.,
2009). Further, the potential value of testing SAKs is plentiful. The testing of kitsregardless of
victim-offender relationship and statute of limitationscan result in CODIS hits (Campbell et al.,
2016; Campbell et al., 2018; Campbell et al., 2019b) and help identify previously unknown suspects,
conf‌irm identities of identif‌ied suspects, and exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted
(Campbell et al., 2017a). Recently, researchers have explored how the testing of previously unsub-
mitted kits can help identify serial sex offenders (Campbell et al., 2019a; Campbell et al., 2020;
Lovell et al., 2019; Lovell et al., 2020).
Given the potential benef‌its of testing kits for investigative leads, researchers have attempted to
understand why kits went unsubmittedand therefore, untestedfor so long. Available jurisdic-
tional resources for submission and testing is a necessary consideration (Campbell et al., 2017a;
Pinchevsky and Sousa 465

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