Guest Post: Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims in Georgia

Today's guest author is Representative Scott Holcomb, the champion of Georgia's landmark 2016 rape kit reform bill. Here, Rep. Holcomb shares how rape kit reform came to pass in Georgia.

For several years, I was aware of the rape kit backlog issue across the country. In 2015, I began questioning if it was an issue in my home state of Georgia, where I serve in the House of Representatives. After speaking with law enforcement, victims' rights advocates, survivors, and care providers, it was clear to me that Georgia had a problem, but no one knew exactly how bad it was. We had no protocols that ensure the timely processing of sexual assault kits. Fortunately, we all agreed to work together to take action and solve the problem.

Over the course of many months, we built a strong coalition, developed and refined the policy, and, ultimately, passed statewide legislation. The bipartisan legislation that was passed, Senate Bill 304, does three main things:

  1. It clears the backlog;
  2. It sets clear timelines for processing kits going forward; and
  3. It requires the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to publish an annual report on December 1 that lists the number of kits that have been tested and the number that are awaiting testing.

This blog shares what we did and how we did it.

Politics and Policy

You would think that this legislation would have been a no-brainer and would have passed easily, but it turned out to be a major battle. There was a single, powerful opponent to the bill who claimed that the law wasn't necessarythat there wasn't a rape kit backlog problem in Georgia.

The coalition that helped to draft the bill—law enforcement, care providers, survivors, and victims' rights advocates, including the Joyful Heart Foundation—knew that there was, in fact, a problem, and we worked extremely hard to overcome the opposition and pass the bill into law. We also benefited from significant media pressure, including a scathing clip from Samantha Bee about the legislator who opposed the bill.

In the end, the bill passed at midnight on the last day of the 2016 legislative session. It was a triumph of perseverance by our coalition of advocates.

Since the law went into effect, thousands of kits that were sitting on shelves have been transferred to GBI and testing has begun. More than 200 kits were from children and teens.

The results of the tests are starting to come in. Of the first 100 kits that were tested and entered into the DNA database, the results showed that 10 perpetrators behind those kits were repeat offenders. Prosecutors are preparing cases and we expect criminal trials to begin soon. This effort will lead to the identification and prosecution of rapists and serial killers.

Fixing the Backlog

The first step in addressing the backlog was to make sure that the kits were transferred to law enforcement. We heard from various care providers that they had difficulty with getting law enforcement to retrieve the kits and that is why they had kits sitting on shelves—even when victims wanted their cases to move forward in the criminal justice system. To address this issue, we required care providers to notify law enforcement by July 15 if they had kits that needed to be retrieved.

Law enforcement then had until July 31, 2016 to pick up the kits. After that, they had 30 days to deliver them to GBI. Thirty days was selected as the timeframe because Georgia is a large state and some rural law enforcement agencies are only able to make trips to the GBI once per month. We wanted a timeframe that was achievable and supported by law enforcement.

Shortly before the law went into effect, GBI received a phone call from a children's hospital that had more than 200 kits that they had been holding for years. We were shocked that it took a law to prompt action, but we were heartened to see that the law was working. Kits were being identified and transferred to law enforcement.

In July of 2016, GBI received 541 rape kits and then another 1,994 in August. These kits had been sitting on shelves across the state—both in cities and rural areas.

While we are encouraged that many kits were identified and are now moving in the criminal justice system, we do not know for certain if all of the kits have been identified and transferred to GBI. Every law enforcement agency and care provider was made aware of the law and the requirement to transfer the kits, but the law did not require an affirmative response from every hospital, care provider, and law enforcement agency, so we do not know for certain if every kit from the backlog is now in GBI's custody. For those of you who are considering legislation, I would encourage you to add this requirement.

The Process Going Forward

In addition to addressing the backlog, we also established a protocol for new cases. For cases where the victim wants the case to be forwarded to law enforcement, the law requires law enforcement to retrieve rape kits from hospitals or other care facilities within 96 hours. The purpose of this was to make sure that law enforcement responds quickly and the kits do not linger when victims want their cases to be prosecuted. In many areas of the state, law enforcement retrieves the kits within 24 hours, and we told those agencies to keep doing what they are doing. The 96-hour deadline sets the maximum timeframe for law enforcement to respond.

After taking possession of the kits, law enforcement must transfer them to GBI within 30 days. GBI then maintains custody of the kits and performs (or oversees, if the kits are sent to a private lab) the DNA testing. This was a change in policy, and GBI agreed to accept the responsibility.

Annual Reports from GBI

We wanted to make sure that we had up-to-date and accurate data on the number of rape kits that have been tested and the number of kits that are awaiting testing. Consequently, the law requires GBI to publish an annual report with this information on December 1.

This data is important because it will provide information about reported cases across our state and provide important information about our progress. In addition, this data will be used to inform budget decisions. Based on the number of kits that have been identified, we will likely need to either devote or find additional resources (such as grant dollars) to test the kits—at least until we clear the backlog. During a recent conversation that I had with a GBI official, I was told that it would take our state six years to test all of the kits that we currently have, based on existing resources. And that does not account for kits from new cases, which also must be tested.

Conclusion

The failure to adequately address the issue of sexual violence is a tragedy. We have much more work to do, but we have made progress in pursuing justice for victims of rape and sexual assault. We are clearing the backlog and testing kits that had been sitting on shelves for years. We have codified protocols to ensure the timely processing of sexual assault kits going forward.

But our work is not finished.

In many ways, the hard work is just beginning. We are working on notification procedures. We are advocating for increased training for law enforcement on the effects of trauma. And we are developing a system to better track sexual assault kits from collection to prosecution. 

I am proud to be an ally in these efforts. And I am very grateful to the Joyful Heart Foundation and everyone who is working to end the backlog and pursue justice for survivors.

-By Representative Scott Holcomb, November 22, 2016

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.

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END THE BACKLOG is a JOYFUL HEART FOUNDATION initiative and a proud supporter of