California Forum

California at last can fix its rape kit backlog. Don’t delay justice any more

Criminalist Angel Shaw processes a rape kit at Sacramento County DA’s DNA crime analysis lab, June 13, 2013.
Criminalist Angel Shaw processes a rape kit at Sacramento County DA’s DNA crime analysis lab, June 13, 2013. rbyer@sacbee.com

Last month in Sacramento, we witnessed the shocking arrest of the East Area Rapist. The case highlighted, again, the importance of DNA evidence in solving crimes.

What a relief that those victims will finally have their day of justice. But what about other victims? Why does California lag in testing the DNA evidence of their ordeals, particularly victims of rape?

It would cost $20 million to process the backlog and $3.3 million annually to ensure every kit is counted as they are collected. This is a drop in the bucket to secure justice for these rape victims and remove the threat of serial predators in our midst.

California law enforcement agencies have a backlog of more than 13,000 forensic evidence kits that are used to identify DNA from the clothing or the body of a rape victim. According to a 2014 State Auditor report, statewide, there are approximately 1,500 to 2,200 sexual assault cases per year by unknown assailants, most of which have corresponding sexual assault evidence kits.

Local officials say they are hamstrung by a lack of budget to process these rape kits, which cost an average of $1,500 to scientifically analyze. It would cost $20 million to process the backlog and $3.3 million annually to ensure every kit is counted as they are collected.

This is a drop in the bucket to secure justice for these rape victims and remove the threat of serial predators in our midst. As crimes are forgotten by the public and rape kits deteriorate on shelves, we should be outraged that our state has not addressed this. Justice delayed is justice denied.

In May, Gov. Jerry Brown announced the state budget will have an almost $9 billion surplus. The governor’s spending proposal includes important requests for dealing with the state’s growing homeless problem, affordable housing issues, and combating poverty. But other than for ongoing forensic lab expenses, there is no new money proposed to help law enforcement address the rape kit backlog.

Legislators can fix this in their budget conference committee, and they should have a sense of urgency. Two years ago the lenient verdict for Brock Turner, a drunk Stanford University student who sexually assaulted an intoxicated and unconscious woman, led to an uproar about the ambiguity of California’s legal definition of rape. Legislators quickly amended a bill to clarify the definition of rape, passing the measure through all the legislative committees and floor votes in both the Senate and Assembly in just five legislative weeks.

The processing of rape kits should be considered an essential need and get the funding it deserves. What is the point of going through the invasive process of collecting DNA evidence if rape kits are not going to be tested? With every year, additional kits are added into storage across the state, compounding the problem.

What is an acceptable number before policy makers commit to paying to get these kits tested? To me, and to the many victims awaiting justice, that number should be zero.

Elena Lee Reeder, former press secretary to Assemblyman David Chiu, is principal of LeederStrategies, a Sacramento communications firm. Reach her at elena@leederstrategies.com.

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