Earlier this month, Joyful Heart’s Policy and Advocacy team attended the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Summit in Boston. Over the course of three days, we connected with lawmakers and staffers from across the country about how to end the backlog of untested rape kits. Advocates and stakeholders know kits are shelved in evidence storage rooms nationwide, and NSCL was the perfect opportunity to advance Joyful Heart’s campaign to eliminate the backlog and enact comprehensive rape kit reform in all 50 states by 2020.
In 2010, Illinois became the first state in the nation to pass rape kit legislation. In the seven years since, public outcry has grown louder, and—as we learned at NCSL—legislators are listening. They are hearing from constituents who are survivors and cannot obtain information about their kits. They are reading news stories about kits being abandoned and forgotten for decades. They are listening to experts whose research shows that testing backlogged rape kits makes communities safer. And lawmakers are taking action: this year, 76 rape kit reform bills were introduced in 34 states.
Although these numbers are promising, and we are making significant strides every day, more work remains. Our staff is working to educate lawmakers about the extent of the backlog and how to craft survivor-centered policies. Joyful Heart recommends state legislators enact all six pillars of legislative rape kit reform: 1) annual statewide inventories of kits; 2) mandatory testing of backlogged kits; 3) mandatory testing of new kits; 4) a kit tracking system; 5) victims’ rights to notice about the status of their kits; and 6) funding for reform. At NCSL, we spoke with legislators about this campaign and the unique challenges they may face in bringing reform to their states. Although our platform includes all of the core legislative policies necessary for reform, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and Joyful Heart is ready to work with each state to customize legislation to tackle their backlogs.
At NCSL, legislators noted the need to work with all stakeholders in reform: law enforcement, crime labs, sexual assault forensic nurses, prosecutors, state sexual assault coalitions, and survivors. Idaho Rep. Melissa Wintrow stopped by to share her experience leading on victims’ rights legislation this year. To draft the best possible bill, she assembled a task force of stakeholders involved in the rape kit handling process, from sexual assault forensic nurses to law enforcement. Well-designed policies engage multiple disciplines, advocates, and survivors.
Finding sufficient funding is a universal challenge for legislators. At NCSL, we discussed the diverse strategies legislators across the country have used to allocate necessary funding. Utah Rep. Angela Romero and Sen. Todd Weiler fiercely championed the appropriation of $1.2 million this year to create a rape kit tracking system and test all newly collected kits. By building bipartisan support for these necessary public safety reforms—which both bring justice for survivors and take serial criminals off the streets—they succeeded. While states can also secure federal grants to supplement state funding, legislators must make every effort to fully fund rape kit reform through their appropriations process.
At NSCL, we were inspired and energized to keep building on the growing momentum of the past few years. Joyful Heart is working with state legislators in all 50 states to bring about comprehensive reform by 2020. It will take significant resources and political will, but as survivors, advocates, and a growing number of legislators know, it’s worth it.
-By Lily Rocha, Policy & Advocacy Manager, August 28, 2017
END THE BACKLOG is an initiative 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.