Backlog buster

Two bills would require locales to do what Sacramento County crime lab has done for five years

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the September 27, 2018, issue.

After years of determined legislative advocacy, sexual assault survivors and their allies are on the verge of forcing law enforcement agencies in California to account for an untold backlog of rape kits. If signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the two bills at the heart of their campaign will require counties across the state to do what Sacramento has been doing for five years.

Senate Bill 1449 reached Brown’s desk on August 31. If signed, it will require crime labs to analyze all rape kits within three months of receiving them. That would be on top of the 20 days that law enforcement agencies have to send rape kits to the labs for testing.

“After having been raped and then undergoing an invasive rape kit exam, it’s unconscionable that a victim would be led to believe that their rape kit would be tested promptly and then have that kit sit for months or years on a shelf,” Sen. Connie M. Leyva, who authored SB 1449 as well as an earlier bill eliminating the statute of limitations for rape, said in a statement.

A companion to Leyva’s bill, requiring a full scale audit to determine how many untested rape kits exist in the state, is also awaiting Brown’s signature after clearing its final legislative hurdle last month.

In Sacramento County, the crime lab is run by the district attorney’s office, and has been testing every rape kit it receives since 2013.

While more than half of sexual assaults go unreported to authorities, the victims who do come forward overwhelmingly consent to forensic exams in the hopes of identifying their perpetrators, local data shows. Last year, rape kits were collected from more than 65 percent of survivors who reported their attacks in Sacramento County, according to an analysis of data from the DA’s office and state Department of Justice. In 2016, nearly 73 percent of survivors underwent the evidentiary exams.

In an emailed statement, Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Michael Blazina told SN&R that there are multiple reasons why a rape kit might not be collected following a reported attack.

“For example, rape kit collection is entirely consensual; if a sexual assault victim wants to make a police report, but does not want a physical examination, there would be no kit collected,” he wrote. “Also, a kit may not be collected if too much time has passed since the sexual assault occurred, or the nature of the sexual assault is such that it would not result in a finding of physical evidence.”

A lack of faith that the kit will be analyzed can also dampen survivors’ willingness to undergo what’s been described as a grueling, hours-long exam. But promptly testing rape kits doesn’t always lead to justice, either. As SN&R reported last month, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is the worst large agency in California at solving rapes, despite a majority of victims agreeing to sexual assault forensic exams that are analyzed by the crime lab.