California lawmakers are proposing two bills to address the backlog of untested sexual assault kits in the state.
One bill, SB 1449, is authored by Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva. She says the bill would change existing law with one word:
“By saying that law enforcement agencies and forensic laboratories shall follow, instead of should follow, as it currently states, listed time frames for submitting and analyzing rape kit evidence,” Leyvah explains.
It also requires rape kits to be submitted within 20 days and tested no later than 120 days after that. Leyva says this timeline will prevent the backlog from happening in the first place.
The other bill, authored by Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu, seeks to count and track untested kits. The Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by actress Mariska Hargitay, is a sexual-assault awareness group. It ran public records requests to find the number of untested kits across the country. It estimates about 13,000 rape kits remain untested in California alone. Chiu says there’s no official number for exactly how many rape kits are untested.
“There’s ample federal funding available to address backlog kits, but to apply for those funds localities, cities, counties need to know exactly how many kits they have sitting on their shelves,” Chiu explains.
Bills with similar proposals have been introduced in the past, Chiu says, but opponents usually say the budget doesn’t allow for it.
“And our response is that we need to know exactly how many kits are untested, so we can fight for the budget that departments need to test them.”
Chiu says others oppose it because they want law enforcement agencies to have discretion in how and when to test the sexual assault kit.
“And so, for example, in some instances, where a person who’s charged with a crime confesses to it, the suggestion is, well, he confessed, so there’s no need to test the kit,” Chiu says. “We don’t think this is something that should be discretionary, it needs to be a mandatory part of what it means to fully investigate a case.”
Lawmakers want to fund costs for the bills through the state budget. Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised spending plan calls for more money for the Department of Justice. Chiu and Leyva are hopeful that means more money for addressing the sexual assault backlog.
H.D. Palmer, with the state’s Department of Finance, says the budget proposal already includes allocations for statewide forensic services, which include sexual assault kit testing. But those funds only apply to the state’s 11 regional laboratories and not to those of counties, or for labs that don’t send their tests to these regional labs.
“From a statewide level, we want to make sure that there are adequate resources to ensure that those forensic laboratory activities will be able to continue and not fall behind,” Palmer says. “A separate, but related issue, is the number of local rape kits that have not been tested yet and that is the focus on the Leyva bill.”
The Department of Justice says their labs don’t have a sexual assault kit backlog, but that only pertains to kits sent to their 11 regional labs. The number of untested kits at county labs is still unknown.