Local and State Government Response
Last week, Mariska Hargitay, founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation and Sarah Tofte, Joyful Heart’s Director of Policy & Advocacy, along with Annette Burrhus-Clay, Executive Director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle urging Texas lawmakers to pass legislation that calls for all rape kits to be counted and tested.
The bill would require law enforcement to inventory and report the number of untested rape kits in their storage facilities by October 2011 and to send all backlogged kits for testing by 2012. In addition, every new rape kit would be sent to a crime lab within 30 days of being booked into police evidence.
Testing kits helps bring perpetrators to justice and sends rapists the message that they will be held accountable for their crimes. And significantly, testing sends rape victims the clear, compassionate and vital message that their cases and their lives matter.
After a victim goes through an exam and agrees to have the kit turned over to the police, the logical assumption is that the evidence collected will be sent to a crime lab for testing. Why else would so much effort, time and extreme discomfort go into collecting the evidence?
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Following a disclosure by Cuyahoga County prosecutors that an untested rape kit linked to a serial-killing suspect, Ohio’s Attorney General Mike DeWine has called for a statewide protocol based on best practices of how rape case evidence should be handled and tested. He will be forming an 11-member Sexual Assault Kit Testing Commission to produce the “Ohio Model Sexual Assault Kit Testing Guide.”
In 2009, the Cleveland Heights Police Department took custody of the rape kit, which contained DNA evidence left on a victim’s body following a sexual assault, but it was never sent out to a crime lab for testing. Last week, the county prosecutors office revealed that evidence contained in this rape kit linked to Anthony Sowell, who has been charged with multiple counts of aggravated murder, kidnapping, abusing a corpse and tampering with evidence in the deaths of the 11 women. He faces the death penalty if convicted.
With many states struggling to foot the bill to end backlogs of untested evidence including rape kits in crime labs, Wisconsin is poised to take steps to prevent bottlenecks from occurring in the future. The state, which was overwhelmed by testing needs for much of the last decade, seemed to have recently got its historic backlog under control, but it is unclear if a secondary backlog has developed.
However, with law enforcement officials submitting more and more DNA evidence to solve a wide range of crimes, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has asked for additional support. And despite the state’s much-publicized budget shortfall, Governor Scott Walker has agreed to fund additional staff at the labs to make sure the justice system does not end up with future backlogs.
Wisconsin’s ABC affiliate station said Gov. Walker has agreed to fund six more analysts at a cost of $770,000 over the next two years. The legislature, which has been fighting a contentious battle over the state’s $3.6 billion budget shortfall, will discuss the proposal in the coming months. The Governor said through a spokesperson that even as other government functions are cut, the state must address rising caseloads and provide “the funding for additional More >
California Assemblyman Anthony Portantino has introduced legislation in the state government to track and report untested rape kits and set a time limit for labs to process them. From an article on patch.com:
The bill, AB 322…would mandate that rape kits used for DNA testing be sent by law enforcement agencies to a lab within 30 days, and be processed within six months. Agencies would also have to send regular reports on the number of unprocessed rape kits to the [California] Department of Justice that would be also be available to the public.
Portantino, a strong advocate of rape kit reform, has introduced similar legislation in the past, which passed in the legislature both times, but was vetoed by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who cited a lack of available time and money on the part of law enforcement. From the press release issued by Portantino’s office:
“It’s unconscionable that thousands of rape kits remain unopened and untested across California,” stated Portantino. “Rape kits hold vital evidence that is crucial to a criminal conviction, while the clock is ticking on the statute of limitation for these crimes. It’s frustrating to know that a rapist could be walking free and a victim who suffered is further disrespected because a vital More >
As many of you have heard, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) announced this week that they have ended their “historic” rape kit backlog of 6,132 kits, resulting in at least 300 new arrests. This is a significant milestone in the work to reform rape kit testing in Los Angeles city.
For the past three years, advocates in Los Angeles and nationally have worked together to end the LAPD’s rape kit backlog, and the news this week that the historic backlog has been tested is an accomplishment that sets up Los Angeles to be considered a model for the rest of the country.
Joyful Heart is pleased to have played a part in this reform along with a number of local and national organizations including Peace Over Violence, the UCLA-Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center and Human Rights Watch. Last year, we placed calls and wrote letters to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and then-Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton to encourage them to find the resources necessary to outsource all of the testing of the historic backlog, increase crime lab staff, and better track rape kit testing results. When Law & Order: SVU featured the rape kit backlog in the third episode of its twelfth More >