As legislative sessions have come to an end in states across the country, progress has been made in efforts to address the rape kit backlog.
On June 12, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced that the state legislature has allocated $3 million to support sexual assault prosecutions statewide. The funds will be used to help test the thousands of unprocessed rape kits remaining in the state.
The legislature also took steps to prevent future buildups of untested rape kits when it passed a law that specifies a timetable for law enforcement to send kits to a crime lab for analysis. Specifically, the legislation requires police to retrieve a rape kit from a healthcare facility within 14 days of notification. Police then have 14 additional days to send the kit to a crime lab. Furthermore, the bill stipulates that the lab must analyze the kit within 90 days, provided that sufficient staffing and resources are available. On June 26, Governor Rick Snyder signed the legislation into law.
Legislators in Ohio also took steps to reduce the state’s backlog. The Ohio Senate passed a bill authored by Senator Capri Cafaro that sets time limits for law enforcement to submit previously untested rape kits to a crime lab for analysis. Under Senate Bill 316, police departments would have one year to submit those kits to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation or another approved crime lab.
Senator Cafaro told WFMJ:
"We got bipartisan support. The entire Senate co-sponsored it. It would provide one year from the enactment of the bill to clear that rape kit backlog, have local law enforcement submit down to BCI so it would be entered into the DNA database known as CODIS."
Similar to the Michigan bill, Ohio’s measure would also aim to expedite the processing of newly collected rape kits. If enacted, the legislation would give police 30 days to send a newly collected rape kit to a crime lab for DNA analysis. The bill is now pending in the Ohio House of Representatives.
Louisiana has also signed into law legislation designed to address the state’s rape kit backlog. Effective as of August 1, 2014, Senate Bill 296 gives every law enforcement agency in the state until January 1, 2015 to report the number of untested kits in its possession to the Louisiana State Police crime lab. The law further mandates that the crime lab report “the number of kits in each parish and within each local criminal justice agency” to the Senate by March 1, 2015, according to Gambit.
This new legislation represents an important step toward ending the backlog of untested rape kits in Louisiana. Without legislation that makes counting mandatory, rape kits often remain in storerooms, untested and undocumented.
In June, the Senate Public Safety Committee in California passed a bill introduced by Assemblymember Nancy Skinner that would encourage law enforcement officials to submit newly collected rape kits to a crime lab within 10 days. Crime labs would then be encouraged to analyze the kits and enter any resulting DNA profiles into CODIS within 60 days, or send the kit to another lab within 30 days of receipt.
As the bill does not allocate any additional funding for rape kit testing, it faces opposition from the California State Sheriff’s Association. The group’s president, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, said. "The problematic part of this piece of legislation is really the unfunded mandate and the over-burdensome regulation that it brings. Really this is about local control. It's about the sheriffs having the discretion in determining which forensic cases we refer to the Department of Justice."
Assemblymember Skinner has tried to address these concerns by increasing the bill’s timeline for law enforcement from 5 days to 10 days and allowing labs 60 days to upload DNA information into CODIS, rather than the originally proposed 30 days. The bill would also not take effect until January 1, 2016.
The new laws in Louisiana and Michigan and pending bills in Ohio and California represent critical steps toward reforming how these states handle sexual assault evidence. The improved tracking of untested kits that the Louisiana law requires is needed across the country so that we have a clearer picture of the backlog, and by proposing a strict timetable for police and crime laboratories to follow, Michigan’s legislators have created a way to avoid future backlogs.
States must take steps to provide survivors with greater access to justice, including requiring the testing of all rape kits booked into evidence. Only with this type of accountability can state and federal lawmakers begin to end the backlog.
- By Jackie Katz, August 8, 2014
ENDTHEBACKLOG is a program of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.