State lawmakers have taken important steps toward ensuring justice for sexual assault victims and demanding accountability for the perpetrators of those crimes.
Because of their efforts, the state has processed thousands of untested rape kits, with the backlog set to be eliminated within the next two years. But the work is not done.
The ultimate goal is not to test evidence kits, but to solve criminal cases and bring perpetrators to justice. Lawmakers have an opportunity to advance those efforts by passing House Bill 2318.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, builds on recent legislation requiring timely testing of sexual assault kits by establishing protocols for the collection and retention of potential evidence. It is scheduled for consideration in executive session in the House Committee on Public Safety this week.
The bill includes several significant enhancements to current law and practice. It clarifies that the definition of sexual assault kits includes all evidence collected during a sexual assault medical forensic examination. It creates a tracking system to note the location and status of rape kits throughout the criminal justice process. It establishes storage protocols for kits related to assaults not yet connected to a criminal investigation, requiring local law enforcement agencies to store those kits, and any related criminal investigatory records, for 20 years.
That change, in particular, will take the pressure off survivors who are uncertain about pressing charges in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic sexual assault. As committee members heard in a hearing last week, some hospitals in the state keep unreported-rape kits for as little as a month before discarding them. This bill would create a standard where none exists. It also establishes a chain of custody, which preserves the kits’ usefulness as potential evidence.
Other provisions in the bill would direct courts to collect DNA from convicted offenders during court appearances. A third element of the bill would direct the Criminal Justice Training Commission to propose a case review program to develop best practices and training for sexual assault investigations.
It is a natural extension of the work that’s been done to date, as Andrea Piper-Wentland, who was representing King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, testified during the Public Safety Committee hearing. The state Attorney General’s Office also testified in support of the bill.
Some law enforcement agencies have expressed concern about taking responsibility for sexual assault kits that would not become evidence if survivors decide not to pursue criminal charges. But law enforcement agencies are arguably best equipped to store and manage the kits.
Separately, lawmakers will need to grapple with overall storage needs for the tested kits, and with cold-case resources needed to follow up on test results. Testing has already resulted in 420 hits in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, Orwall said. Sixty-four of those were matches to multiple assaults. Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs Policy Director James McMahan testified that law enforcement agencies will need an estimated combined $25 million to follow up on new leads.
These concerns are worth keeping in mind, but they are not cause to delay taking the next step in this important work.
Lawmakers and stakeholders should act swiftly to advance the bill.
Correction: This editorial was updated to correct Andrea Piper-Wentland’s role with KCSARC. Mary Ellen Stone is the organization’s executive director.