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Op-ed: Utah steps up for victims with law to test all rape kits

First Published      Last Updated Mar 26 2017 04:04 pm

Despite the fact that DNA evidence is an incredibly powerful tool to solve and prevent crimes, there are hundreds of thousands of rape kits around the country that have never been sent to a crime lab for testing. In 2014, Utah's statewide working group for sexual assault kits found an estimated 2,750 untested rape kits statewide.

Every year, thousands of individuals who have been sexually assaulted take the courageous step of reporting the crime to the police. They submit to an examination of their body and have evidence collected in a process that typically takes four to six hours. Survivors expect that their kit will be tested. The public expects the same. Yet too often, the decision is made not to test these kits.




Many reasons are given for not testing every rape kit. Law enforcement often cites a lack of resources and personnel as barriers to processing rape kits. There are also claims that untested kits do not represent a backlog — that such cases cannot be pursued because survivors were uncooperative or didn't want to proceed with investigation or charging offenders. Often, survivors do not want to move forward with their cases not because they are uncooperative, but because of the treatment they received from the criminal justice system.

Today, we are proud to stand together to celebrate Gov. Gary Herbert's signing of House Bill 200, which mandates the testing of all rape kits, requires annual reporting on the processing of rape kits, authorizes the development of a statewide kit tracking system with a victim portal, and increases sexual assault training opportunities for first responders and investigators.

We are also proud to stand with every survivor who has taken the step of reporting a crime to the police and endured an invasive examination in search of DNA evidence left behind by the attacker in the hopes it will be used in the pursuit of justice.

Utah has now joined the growing number of states that have passed laws requiring sexual assault kit audits or some type of mandatory rape kit submission guidelines. This bill will make important changes not just for survivors, but for our communities. When tested, rape kit evidence can identify serial perpetrators, take dangerous offenders off the streets, exonerate the innocent, and prevent future crimes. Rapists are often serial offenders who are engaged in other crimes. They commit crimes against strangers, intimate partners and acquaintances. This is why we support the mandatory submission and testing of every rape kit booked into evidence and connected to a reported sexual assault, regardless of whether or not the assailant is known.

When cities across the country take steps to eliminate their backlog of untested kits, they discover hundreds of violent offenders that have been acting with impunity. When the city of Detroit discovered 11,341 untested rape kits, the county prosecutor moved to analyze each and every one. So far, they have identified 784 potential serial rapists who have committed crimes in 40 states.

To be sure, we have more work to do. This work takes political will, but it also takes significant resources. We must commit ourselves to monitoring the implementation of HB200, and ensuring that communities across Utah work together not just to eliminate their backlogs, but to do so in a survivor-centered way that brings about true reform.

We hear over and over again from survivors that the responses they are met with — from friends, family, police and prosecutors matter — have an impact their healing and on the decision to report a rape and participate in the criminal justice process. Let us continue to be a model for the country by doing what is right by survivors who have waited far too long for justice.

Rep. Angela Romero is the Utah House Democrat Minority Assistant Whip and chief sponsor of HB200. Ilse Knecht is director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation.

 

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