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May 25 Is Landmark Day for Bills That Target Backlog of Untested Rape Kits

On May 25, the state Senate Appropriations Committee will decide whether to advance two bills that would demand the speedy testing of California’s large backlog of rape kits and the timely testing of all newly collected rape kits.

AB3118 requires the first-ever statewide inventory of untested rape kits in California. At present, state officials have no idea how many kits are sitting on shelves across the state.

SB1449 mandates the testing of all newly collected rape kits. The law currently states that rape kits “should” be tested. The bills asks for that language to be changed to “shall” to remove any ambiguity, or the idea that testing the kits is optional.

It sounds like common sense — test the kits as quickly as possible in order to arrest and prosecute those responsible for sexual violence. Unfortunately, there’s a financial impact that is holding the bills back, says Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy with the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit with the mission to transform society's response to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.

“One of the most important things to remember about this is, No. 1, crime costs us money,” Knecht said. “So as long as these offenders are out on the streets, they’re costing us money. They’re draining the resources of law enforcement, but they’re also costing individuals and communities money. It costs money to test a rape kit but you’re also saving money down the line. It’s hard to put a dollar figure on victimization, but people have done that.”

The top priority for government should be to keep people safe, and it’s falling short, Knecht said. Across the country, rape kits have been sitting on shelves for decades, which means offenders remain on the streets, possibly committing more crimes. In addition, there’s a concern that, while DNA is strong when stored correctly, and criminals have been caught decades after committing a crime thanks to DNA evidence, it does still degrade over time.

The traditionally progressive California lags behind states such as Kentucky when it comes to getting the backlog of rape kits tested, although L.A. County and Orange County have made progress, Knecht said.

“L.A. and L.A. County had at one point about 12,000 untested kits,” she said. “They did test them all, and we are told that L.A. tests every single kit that comes in now. Orange County has some kits — they also have a grant from the Department of Justice to test those kits and investigate the cases, prosecute the cases. Orange County has been proactive in reaching out and getting money for testing those kits. We’re seeing little bits of that across the state, but as a whole the state hasn’t acted. To be honest, we expect more from California.”

Ileana Wachtel, communications director with the Coalition to Preserve L.A., is assisting the Joyful Heart Foundation on the issue. She points out that women who have been raped go through a horribly grueling testing process that can take six hours.

“They can’t take a shower,” Wachtel says. “You go through this thing after being raped, and then your rape kit doesn’t get tested. Even though we have more awareness now, women are still very vulnerable to predators. This is particularly hard for women in low-income areas, where there are less resources. People in wealthier districts or areas have more resources. So they don’t have to worry about finding a lawyer or figuring out a way to get their rape kit tested.”

The Joyful Heart Foundation has been trying to raise awareness that May 25 is the day when California will know if the bills will proceed. 

“We have an action page on our website,”  Knect says. “They can call their legislators. Also, it’s really important to contact the appropriations members." In the Senate it's Sen. Ricardo Lara, who represents parts of L.A.; in the Assembly it’s Gonzalez Fletcher, who represents parts of the San Diego area. The website has a splash page about taking action in California.

It all comes back to keeping people safe, and Knecht stressed that each kit sitting on a shelf represents an individual who has been harmed by sexual violence, who has done everything that society has asked them to do — get evidence collected from their body, which is really a crime scene.

“I always say, the first thing they want to do is shower and they don’t,” Knecht says. “They have to sit for hours to get tested, and it’s uncomfortable and invasive and even painful. They do that thinking this evidence is going to be used and tested. [When it isn't,] it makes them distrust the system.”

For more information, go to endthebacklog.org.

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