New bill tries to clear backlog of untested rape kits

Rape cases quickly can descend can into he-said, she-said disputes, especially when law enforcement lacks physical evidence from rape kits. That evidence needs to be gathered in the first 72 hours after an attack, a period when victims frequently are anguished and unsure of whether to even report the crime.

Then, we've learned in recent years, a number of California police agencies essentially shelved many rape kits, with testing backlogs of thousands of biological samples.

If crime labs quickly analyzed such forensic evidence, would rape arrest rates improve? AB 322 might provide an answer.

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena, authored legislation three years ago mandating that the state's law enforcement departments report annual numbers on rape kits received and tested. Portantino was responding to the discovery of more than 7,000 untested kits in Los Angeles County. His bills twice reached the desk of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who twice vetoed the measures, citing financial concerns.

This year, Portantino again has a rape kit bill moving easily through the Legislature, AB 322. It is two votes away from going to Gov. Jerry Brown for consideration.

Beyond the data reporting provisions, the legislation would launch a pilot program in nine counties, some of which have poor records for clearing sex assaults. An analysis of the bill by the Senate Public Safety Committee said the project intends "to determine whether counties with the lowest arrest rates in California for the crime of forcible rape can bring justice to victims by increasing their arrest rates by having all rape kits that are collected in the county tested for evidence of crime."

Every rape kit submitted to police in the targeted counties would be turned over to a state crime lab for analysis.

Those jurisdictions are all rural, but more populated California counties struggle as mightily. Santa Cruz County, for example, cleared only 11 percent of rapes in 2009, according to the attorney general's office data. The statewide clearance rate is 42 percent.

The California State Sheriffs' Association has repeatedly opposed the rape kit legislation on the argument that paying for data collection would take dollars from testing forensic evidence.

The counties included in the study report very few rape cases. And a few perform well with sex assault investigations.

In Los Angeles County, where the rape kit controversy began, the sheriff's office and city police department both say they have eliminated their backlogs. But processing old evidence has not come without a price. As KPCC Southern California Public Radio reported in April:

"While officials touted their accomplishment, they conceded that crime lab staff has struggled to keep up with DNA evidence that comes in from new sexual assaults. Detectives may have to wait months to get test results."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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