California legislators this week set aside partisanship to move toward reducing the state’s backlog of untested rape kits, with both houses passing separate bills targeting the problem.
While California may have a reputation for progressive policies and a history of tough-on-crime laws, Los Angeles and L.A. County at one point had 12,000 untested rape kits, which law enforcement only caught up on in 2011.
And in Long Beach, it was still unclear as of last August whether a backlog exists, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit seeking to transform society's response to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. The group has backed the bills through its End the Backlog efforts.
AB 3118, which requires the first-ever statewide inventory of untested rape kits in California, passed unopposed on Wednesday, May 30.
“Sexual assault survivors are one step closer to the justice they deserve,” said Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), one of the legislators who introduced the bill, in a statement. “To truly address the backlog, we need to know how many untested kits exist in California, and we must test all kits moving forward to ensure we do not increase that backlog. The Legislature sent a strong message today that we stand with survivors.”
At present, state officials have no idea how many kits are sitting on shelves across the state.
SB 1449, which mandates the testing of all newly collected rape kits, also passed unanimously Wednesday. Currently, the law only states that rape kits “should” be tested. The legislation would change that language to “shall,” removing an ambiguity that could lead agencies to believe that testing the kits is optional.
“It is critically important that any DNA evidence … is processed quickly so that law enforcement authorities can identify and prosecute rapists,” said Sen. Connie M. Leyva (D-Chino), who introduced the measure. “It is unacceptable for a rape kit to ever sit on a shelf somewhere untested.”
Experts have expressed concerns 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.
During next month’s annual budget negotiations, both legislative bodies must approve their counterpart’s bill and ensure the necessary funding is in place.
“We can and must do better to bring dignity back into the system for victims across the state,” said Sarah Haacke Byrd, managing director of the Joyful Heart Foundation. “By passing these bills, California can take dangerous violent offenders off the street and demonstrate a commitment to survivors to help them find a path to healing and justice.”
Brett Callwood contributed to this report.
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