RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina has more than 15,000 untested sexual assault kits, a backlog that national advocacy group described as "significant."

Attorney General Josh Stein released that number Wednesday at a news conference where he also proposed steps that would prevent a backlog from occurring again.

"Testing sexual assault evidence collection kits is important for promoting public safety," Stein said. "It brings offenders to justice. It secures justice for victims. It closes cases. And it prevents future crime."

A new state law required all law enforcement agencies to report their numbers of untested rape kits to the State Crime Lab earlier this year, and 92 percent of the 563 agencies responded.

The audit divided the kits into five categories: anonymous victim who didn't go to law enforcement (390); kit is tied to a case settled in court (2,741); suspect admitted to the crime (1,054); unfounded allegations (3,820); and a catchall category for other kits (7,545) for a total of 15,160.

Stein proposed that legislators establish a committee to determine which kits should be tested first. The cost of testing a kit is about $700, meaning it would cost about $10 million to test all of them.

Garner police Chief Brandon Zuidema, who attended the news conference, said the kits are a necessary part of the evidence needed to convict rapists. "We wouldn't ignore any other clues that we have," said Zuidema, president of the North Carolina Association of Police Chiefs. "We certainly shouldn't ignore these clues, especially when they're in our possession."

The attorney general also proposed that the state place bar codes on sexual assault kits in the future so that law enforcement, attorneys and victims can track them. "Right now, you can get a bar code so you know where your package is to guarantee delivery," Stein said. "We can have that same bar code on sexual assault kits to guarantee testing."

A few states already use tracking systems, said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which advocates for testing of all rape kits. And federal grant money is available to help pay for testing; investigating cases that arise from testing; and for initiating tracking systems, she said.

At least 32 other states have audited their untested sexual assault kits, Knecht said. And while it's difficult to compare state-by-state numbers, she did say North Carolina's number is significant.

For example, Texas is the second-largest state in the nation with a population of almost 27.9 million in 2016. At one point, it had 20,000 untested rape kits. With 15,000 kits, North Carolina has three-quarters of the Texas number, but is the ninth most populous state with a population of about 10 million in 2016 — less than half that of Texas.

Still, Knecht described North Carolina's release of the numbers as "a bold first step."

"It's hard to put these numbers out," she said. "Once a state does that, that's when reform starts."


Follow Martha Waggoner at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc