Capitol Alert

Rape kit testing lags, so lawmakers want California taxpayers to donate

Criminalist Angel Shaw processes a rape kit at the Sacramento County DA's DNA crime analysis lab on June 13, 2013.
Criminalist Angel Shaw processes a rape kit at the Sacramento County DA's DNA crime analysis lab on June 13, 2013. The Sacramento Bee file

Hundreds of thousands of rape kits are sitting untested at crime labs and law enforcements agencies across the country.

That figure – at least 175,000 have been documented by advocates, while the federal Department of Justice put its estimate at 400,000 several years ago – is often quick to spark political outrage. But it’s much to slower to generate a solution for reducing the backlog of untested kits, which are used to collect forensic evidence after a victim of sexual assault comes forward.

In California, legislation periodically emerges to prod the process. With each test running $1,000 or more, however, cost is a major barrier, and bills with significant funding requirements have generally fallen by the wayside over the past decade.

So Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, has another solution: Rather than appropriating money from the state budget, Assembly Bill 280 creates a voluntary contribution check-off on the California income tax form. Donations supplement other funds to provide more money for rape kit testing by county and local agencies and crime labs.

“Following the unimaginable trauma of sexual assault, many rape victims endure an invasive and hours-long physical examination in the hope that their perpetrator will be brought to justice,” Low said in a statement. “Leaving rape kits untested adds insult to injury and could prevent sexual predators from being held accountable for their crimes.”

The bill passed the Assembly unanimously last month and will be heard next in the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, 9:30 a.m. in Room 112 of the Capitol. If approved, it would be one of nearly 20 check-offs on next year’s tax return, benefiting philanthropic causes favored by legislators.

Another measure moving through the Legislature this year tries to put an exact number on the problem of untested rape kits in California by requiring police departments to start reporting how many exams they conduct and provide a reason if they do not test a sample. Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, argues that his Assembly Bill 41 would give officials crucial information on why there is a backlog and how it can be improved. Law enforcement groups have raised concerns about the burden it would place on their resources and note that some kits go untested because victims decide not to pursue their case or investigators have other leads.

The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, which runs the county crime lab, said it changed its policy in 2013 to analyze all rape kits that are submitted, rather than just those that investigators request. It is also working through a backlog of 962 untested samples, representing about 12 percent of the kits it has received since 2000.

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Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff