New Law to End California’s Rape Kit Backlog

From left to right,Sandra Henriquez, Executive Director of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), Heather Marlowe,   Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, and Assemblymember Rob Bonta listen as Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announces legislation to end California's backlog of sexual assault evidence. Photo by Spencer Whitney

From left to right,Sandra Henriquez, Executive Director of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), Heather Marlowe, Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, and Assemblymember Rob Bonta listen as Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announces legislation to end California's backlog of sexual assault evidence. Photo by Spencer Whitney

Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) on Tuesday announced that she is introducing legislation to address the backlog of untested rape kits held in law enforcement agencies and forensic labs in California.

“We are here to make it clear that rape kits must be tested,” said Skinner, speaking at a press conference in front of the state building in Oakland.

Among those who spoke at the press conference were Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Sandra Henriquez, Executive Director of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Assemblymember Rob Bonta.

“To not test them is a second assault on the victim and can leave a perpetrator on the streets to offend again,” said Skinner.

She said part of the reason there is a backlog stems from a lack of funding for some crime labs, a breakdown of communication between law enforcement and crime labs, and a failure to have procedures in place to process the kits.

Currently, there is no comprehensive data on the exact number of unprocessed rape kits in California. The bill, AB 1517, would specify timelines for testing rape kits and entering DNA profile information into the Combined DNA Index System, a national database.

Police would turn over rape kit evidence to crime labs within five days wherein the crime lab must have the rape kits tested within 30 days.

In 2008, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department had a combined total of more than 12,000 untested rape kits in their custody. In 2012, Alameda County estimated their backlog of untested rape kits to be 1,900. According to Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization, the national backlog is estimated to be around 400,000 untested rape kits.

“This legislation will provide justice to survivors of sexual assault by testing evidence collected during an invasive physical examination and using that evidence to capture and prosecute their assailants,” said District Attorney O’Malley.

“Our efforts must address the backlog throughout the state and the nation and this legislation serves as a vital step toward that goal,” she said.

Under California law, the Sexual Assault Victims’ DNA Bill of Rights identifies DNA as a tool for identifying and prosecuting sexual assault offenders. The DNA evidence is collected during a physical exam that can take up to six hours, and is compiled in the rape kit.

“It’s a retraumatization to be powerless to the rape itself and to be completely helpless in the system that is intended to protect and serve justice,” said Heather Marlowe, whose rape kit sat untested for two-and-a-half-years after being drug-raped in San Francisco on May 16, 2010. “This is a public emergency that needs to be addressed.”

At the crime lab, a DNA profile can be created, if enough DNA evidence is found, and uploaded into a national DNA database. While DNA can help identify unknown offenders, many sexual assaults are committed by persons known to the victim. Therefore, identity is not an issue in most sexual assaults, but can still affect the outcome of a conviction.

“We’ve got to test all the rape kits to prevent attackers from raping again even if it’s a known assailant,” said Skinner. “New York City implemented the policy of testing rape kits immediately and their arrest rate for rapes jumped from 40 percent to 70 percent. Nationally, the arrest rate is at 24 percent.”

Since 2010, only Colorado, Illinois and Texas enacted legislation that requires both the submission of sexual assault kits to crime labs within a time period and establishes tracking methods.

While legislators work to erase California’s backlog of rape kits, Oakland Police Department still has untested evidence from more than 300 homicide cases dating back years. In 2012, OPD solved 28 percent of the homicides in the city.

 

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