Legislators Take Historic Steps to Address California’s Backlog of Untested Rape Kits

For Immediate Release: February 20, 2018
Contact: Melissa Schwartz, media@endthebacklog.org

NEW YORK – In an effort to fundamentally change the way California handles sexual assault kits, State Senator Connie Leyva and Assemblymember David Chiu have introduced two pieces of legislation to mandate the first statewide inventory and the testing of all newly collected rape kits. The Joyful Heart Foundation is proud to endorse this legislation alongside longtime partners Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and survivor Natasha Alexenko.

The extent of the rape kit backlog in California is unknown. To date, more than 13,600 kits have been identified through Joyful Heart’s public records requests and select grant reporting, but the vast majority of jurisdictions in the state have not undergone and publicly released an audit of the untested kits in their custody. Despite being among the first states to uncover this issue almost a decade ago, cities across the state have engaged in inconsistent efforts of reform and transparency. The bills introduced by both legislators will finally bring transparency to rape kit handling procedures in California and uncover the true scope of the problem.

“When the extent of a jurisdiction’s backlog is revealed, real reform can begin. For years, we have focused on California as a critical state in which passage of comprehensive rape kit reform must be undertaken. These introductions will bring us closer to that goal: to safer communities, to a more effective criminal justice system, and to long-awaited resolution for survivors in California, regardless of their zip code,” said Sarah Haacke Byrd, Joyful Heart’s Managing Director. “Behind every kit is a person—a sexual assault survivor—waiting for justice. The time to pass this critical legislation is now.”

In addition to requiring a one-time statewide inventory, Senator Leyva’s legislation addresses weaknesses in existing state law that has allowed dangerous perpetrators to remain on the streets. In 2014, California enacted a law stating that law enforcement agencies “should” submit newly collected rape kits within 20 days. Due to the ambiguity of this language, agencies have adopted various interpretations of the law, and, far too often, do not send all kits for testing. By changing the “should” to “shall” California will join the growing list of states – now twenty – that require testing of all newly collected rape kits.

“After I as raped at gunpoint in 1993, my body became a crime scene. I was unaware of the fact that my rape kit, taken immediately in the aftermath of the assault, would sit on a shelf collecting dust for nearly a decade. For nearly a decade the man that destroyed my life was at large harming others. Transparency and accountability are not a luxury. They are crucial for survivors like me and a requirement for public safety,” added Natasha Alexenko, founder of Natasha's Justice Project.

“Joyful Heart stands with every survivor who has taken the step of reporting the crime to the police and endured an invasive examination in search of DNA evidence left behind by the attacker,” said Ilse Knecht, Director of Policy & Advocacy. “When law enforcement agencies account for and test the rape kits in their custody, they can begin to hold offenders accountable and bring justice to sexual assault survivors whose cases have languished, often for years—or even decades.”

Passage of these bills is a bold step that will bring California one step closer to being in line with national best practices, issued last year by the National Institute of Justice, which included a call for the mandatory testing of all rape kits.

DNA evidence is an invaluable investigative tool. By testing rape kits, communities can identify serial perpetrators, take dangerous offenders off the streets, exonerate the innocent, and prevent future crimes. Yet, too often, the decision is made not to test these kits. In fact, there are currently hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in police and crime lab storage facilities across the country.

Joyful Heart has launched a national campaign, developed following an extensive review, which formalized six pillars for reform. The goal is to pass comprehensive rape kit reform legislation in all 50 states. To date, California has passed only two of the six pillars of reform. In addition to the essential reforms introduced today, California must commit to testing all of the previously unsubmitted (“backlogged”) kits that will be revealed through the inventory and provide appropriate funding to test the kits.

Joyful Heart has created the premier national resource about the rape kit backlog, which includes an interactive map and resources for survivors, legislators, and the media. Learn more at: ENDTHEBACKLOG.org.

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The mission of the Joyful Heart Foundation is to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, support survivors’ healing, and end this violence forever. www.joyfulheartfoundation.org

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