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Natasha's Justice Will Push to End Rape Kit Backlog

The West Sayville organization will advocate for 180,000 kits across the country.

3,468.

That's how many days Natasha Alexenko had to wait before police processed crucial evidence that led to the arrest of the man who sexually assaulted her.

Alexenko's rape kit, which contained DNA samples collected in the hours after she was attacked, sat in storage for nine and a half years before prosecutors sent it to the lab to be tested. The results allowed the police to catch her perpetrator and put him behind bars.

"At the time, I had no idea it was even backlogged," Alexenko said. "I thought 'surely I didn't go through that invasive medical exam for nothing.'"

It was only when Alexenko agreed to participate in a documentary about New York City's sex crimes unit that she realized how common her story was. At the time, New York had 17,000 untested kits.

The city has since completed tests on every kit, but that's not the case in thousands of towns and cities across the county. As many as 180,000 victims are still waiting for the results from their kits.

That's too many for Alexenko.

To alleviate the problem, she founded an organization called Natasha's Justice Project, based in West Sayville. The group aims to make sure every rape kit is tested in a timely manner.

For some cities, the problem is resources - it can cost as much as $2,000 to test each kit, and some places don't have the money. In other cases, police officers can decide not to test a case because they don't think they have the evidence they need to prosecute a criminal.

And in some jurisdictions, there is no organized process for dealing with the kits, which are administered by hospital officials and sent to a crime lab or police district. As a result, some just slip through the cracks.

Fred Klein, a Hofstra University School of Law professor who used to work in the Nassau County District Attorney, said that the evidence gleaned from processing the rape kits can also help solve other crimes, because many assailants are repeat offenders.

But, he said that the kits can get held up because it's challenging to handle them. "It's not an easy process," Klein said. "Many people have to work on them."

Natasha's Justice has linked up with Stony Brook University to study exactly how many kits are backlogged. Tia Palermo, a professor at Stony Brook University, is helping with that research.

"Suffolk is an example of where it's working very well," she said. According to officials, the county has no backlog. This is because there is a very clear protocol in place which ensures that each test is moved quickly from the hospital to the crime lab, where the tests are done.

Alexenko said Suffolk could serve as a model for other municipalities across the country.

"Individuals who commit sexual assault are often repeat offenders," Alexenko said. "The longer we take, the longer these criminals are out on the street."

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