OP-ED | Take Action on Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Reform Before End of Session
The millions of #MeToo stories illustrate the urgent need to do more to support survivors and remove the barriers that keep victims from reporting or staying involved in the criminal justice system.
Survivors who come forward in the aftermath of a significant trauma to undergo an invasive evidence collection exam deserve to have nonjudgmental and compassionate support, an assurance their kit will be tested, access to the information about their case, and the results of the testing. This is a matter of justice for sexual assault victims and a public safety concern.
Every year, there are tens of thousands of sexual assault victims across our country who undergo invasive medical forensic exams to collect evidence left behind by their attackers. When tested, DNA evidence contained in sexual assault evidence collection kits can help solve and prevent crimes. Evidence can corroborate a victim’s account, identify a suspect, link cases, and identify serial rapists. Yet, too often, these kits are left untested in law enforcement storage rooms. It is estimated there are hundreds of thousands of untested kits across the United States.
Connecticut was an early leader in the work to end its backlog of untested sexual assault evidence collection kits and to reform policies for transferring and testing them.
The Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the Connecticut Commission on the Standardization of the Collection of Evidence in Sexual Assault Investigations (the “Evidence Commission”) and the Joyful Heart Foundation have been working on this problem since 2012.
Connecticut has made meaningful progress on reform but more needs to be done.
Senate bill 17, which has broad support from both parties and the administration, requires the development of guidelines for tracking sexual assault evidence collection kits and, along with a House bill, HB 5222, strengthens survivors’ rights. If passed, they will move Connecticut towards alignment with federal best practices. The clock is ticking. Legislators must act to pass the bill before the session ends May 9.
Two voluntary surveys, one conducted by the Evidence Commission and the CT Alliance to End Sexual Violence in 2015, and the other coordinated by the Governor’s Sexual Assault Kit Working Group in 2017, identified a combined total of 1,016 untested kits that were in the custody of law enforcement agencies. Now all of the previously untested kits have been accounted for and the state has taken steps to test every single one. In December 2017, Malloy announced that Connecticut had received its second Bureau of Justice Assistance Sexual Assault Kit Initiative award. As of this month, over 85 percent of the 1,016 kits have been tested, with 88 DNA hits so far.
Since 2015, Connecticut law requires newly collected kits to be submitted to a laboratory within 10 days and tested within 60 days. Realizing comprehensive reform will require that we do more than make sure every kit connected to a reported sexual assault is tested. Kits must be tracked from collection to analysis to make sure all stakeholders in the criminal justice process know the location and status of all kits to prevent another backlog from happening.
Last year, the state contracted with UPS to develop a system to track each kit. The guidelines and training called for in SB 17 will help stakeholders utilize the kit tracking system, and ensure a sexual assault victim advocate is present when a victim comes to a healthcare facility for a sexual assault forensic exam. Both bills expand sexual assault victims’ rights to know about the status of their kit.
These measures will give survivors access to support and information, and help counter the loss of self-determination and control at the core of sexual assault survivors’ experiences.
How we respond to crimes of sexual violence matters. Survivors and the public expect to see meaningful support for survivors this session and Connecticut must continue to be a leader in sexual assault evidence kit reform. Lawmakers, pass SB 17 and HB 5222.
Laura Cordes is the executive director of the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence and chair of the Governor’s Sexual Assault Kit Working Group. Ilse Knecht is the director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national non-profit organization founded by actress and activist Mariska Hargitay, and a leader in the effort to eliminate the national backlog of untested rape kits.
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