Rape Kit Reform in 2015: States Respond to the Crisis

Over the past year, there has been unprecedented movement in the call for rape kit reform. The issue has been covered extensively in the media; the federal government created a new $41 million grant program focused on the untested rape kit backlog and the New York District Attorney’s Office announced $35 million in grant funds for eliminating backlogs across the nation. In May, Congress turned its attention to the issue and the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing highlighting the problem. Joyful Heart provided leadership and critical advocacy to secure the two important sources of funding.

This year also brought an unprecedented amount of activity at the state level aimed at reforming rape kit policies. This is encouraging news because meaningful, uniform change in policies and procedures for rape kit testing will have to happen at the state level

Legislators across the country—from Connecticut to Washington State and from Florida to Minnesota—took notice of the rape kit backlog crisis this year. In the 2015 session (which has ended for most states), 46 pieces of legislation that would address how sexual assault kit evidence is handled were introduced in 25 states, and of those, 11 states enacted bills. For comparison, in the previous session, only 11 states introduced legislation. 

The legislative response to the rape kit backlog has several goals:

  • learn the extent of the backlog 
  • analyze the untested kits 
  • enact guidelines for testing new kits, provide resources for testing 
  • create rights for survivors of the backlog 

We’ve been tracking these legislative initiatives, conferring with legislators and collaborating with state sexual assault coalitions, advocates and survivors to advance meaningful change at the state and local level. We’ve been collaborating for change with our partners in the Rape Kit Action Project because our voices are stronger together and we are deeply dedicated to ensuring that this crucial reform happens quickly.    

One of the first steps to rape kit reform is uncovering the true extent of the backlog. Because the majority of states do not track rape kits, most localities are unsure how many untested kits they have in their evidence storage facilities. Conducting a statewide audit brings transparency to the size of the problem. Several states have enacted bills and conducted audits in the last five years, including Colorado, Illinois, Texas and Virginia. In the 2015 legislative session, eight states enacted audit bills and the counts are underway: Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. While most of these laws require a one-time “baseline” audit, this year, three states—Arkansas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania—passed legislation requiring an annual audit. Mandating annual counts of rape kits is a strong tool to create long-lasting accountability. 

Requiring consistent tracking of rape kits is another key to ensuring transparency and accountability related to the handling of rape kit evidence. Tracking kits allows all parties in the system, including survivors, to follow the path of a rape kit from the hospital to law enforcement to the the lab, and to ensure all the parties are adhering to mandatory testing policies. Only one state has a rape kit tracking law: in 2014, Michigan enacted the Sexual Assault Kit Tracking and Reporting Commission to put in place statewide guidelines for tracking rape kits as they move through the testing process.

One of the foundations of rape kit reform is to mandate the testing of previously untested kits. Several states and local jurisdictions have enacted laws or policies directing law enforcement to send their untested kits to the lab. In 2010, Illinois became the first state to legislate testing of backlogged kits, followed by Texas, Colorado and Ohio. A new Pennsylvania law now gives law enforcement departments a year from the completion of their audit to send unanalyzed kits to the lab. This year, legislators in Connecticut and Washington created work groups or task forces to develop a plan for addressing the backlog and to recommend policies about the handling of rape kits going forward.  

Several states this session took the bold step of requiring new rape kits to be submitted to the crime lab within a designated amount of time. This is good news: mandatory testing laws are key to rape kit reform in order to ensure that a backlog does not happen again. The governors in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington all signed bills this year that set timelines for rape kits to be sent into the lab by law enforcement. California passed legislation that “encourages” law enforcement to submit rape kits within 20 days of receiving them. Prior to this session, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Texas had mandatory testing laws in place. 

While much progress was made on the issue of counting and testing kits, we saw less movement in the states related to victim notification. Only two states created rights for survivors in this last legislative year. Maryland and Pennsylvania now direct law enforcement to notify survivors, upon request, about the status of their rape kits and the results of the testing. Last year, Utah passed a similar law and Michigan enacted legislation requiring notification of survivors 60 days before their kit is scheduled to be destroyed. 

This upcoming legislative season, we will certainly see a lot more activity around this issue. Joyful Heart will continue to advocate, track the legislative action across the country and provide updates to our concerned community. We will continue to work towards ensuring that every state has a policy framework that requires accountability and transparency; mandates every kit to be tested; ensures that rape evidence is handled responsibly; and grants victims rights to know the status of their rape kits and to be informed about their case. We will use our voice to make sure that our message to survivors is reflected in legislation: you matter, what happened to you matters and we will do everything we can to help you find a path to healing and justice. 

- By Ilse Knecht with files from Vivian Long, August 31st, 2015

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.

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