BOSTON – A proposal by House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones, Jr. (R-North Reading) to assist and empower victims of rape and sexual assault is one step closer to becoming law.
Language filed by Representative Jones to address the current backlog of untested rape kits and create a statewide database for tracking these kits within the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) was included in a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill approved by the House and Senate today. The bill is now on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk awaiting his signature.
Under Representative Jones’ proposal, the Secretary of Public Safety and Security will convene a multidisciplinary task force, in conjunction with the Department of Public Health, to develop a tracking system that will provide sexual assault victims with continuous access to information on their kits. Victims will be able to track the status of their kits from their initial collection and receipt by law enforcement, through the testing and storage process.
The bill also mandates that all existing untested kits associated with a reported crime be submitted for testing within 180 days. In 2015, EOPSS requested reports from municipal police departments on the number of untested rape kits in their possession, but only 75 out of 351 departments responded.
The task force must also identify mechanisms to fund the testing of kits to remove any existing backlogs, to ensure victims of rape are not denied justice due to budgetary constraints. Grant programs – including the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence-Inventory, Tracking and Reporting Program (SAFE-ITR) grant and the DNA Capacity Enhancement and Backlog Reduction (Debbie Smith) grant – are already in place to ensure states have the means to provide information to the victim, and bring the offender to justice. Other cities and states – including the Idaho State Police and Portland, Oregon – also provide software free of charge to streamline the testing and cataloging of kits.
In drafting his proposal, Representative Jones worked closely with the Joyful Heart Foundation – a national organization that advocates for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse – to develop a comprehensive approach that incorporates the best practices identified in other jurisdictions. While a number of states have already passed rape kit reform laws, the changes adopted in Massachusetts will be among the most comprehensive in the nation.
“The forensic evidence obtained from testing these kits is critical to helping law enforcement connect individuals to unsolved crimes, but can also be used to help exonerate an innocent person,” said Representative Jones. “The reforms adopted today by the House and Senate send a clear message to survivors of sexual assault that the Commonwealth is fully invested in helping them achieve justice and hopefully realize a sense of healing after enduring such a traumatic experience.”
Major cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Memphis have tested thousands of backlogged kits in storage. In Detroit alone, a total of 11,341 kits were tested, resulting in 2,616 matches made on the DNA database and allowing authorities to identify 811 potential serial rapists who have committed crimes in 40 states and Washington, D.C.
In October of 2016, Governor Baker signed a law requiring forensic evidence obtained as part of a sexual assault or rape investigation to be retained for a minimum of 15 years, which corresponds to the statute of limitations for these crimes. Previously, this evidence was required to be preserved for only six months, and victims had to petition every six months to have it preserved for a longer period of time.
The bill that is now on the Governor’s desk requires hospitals and medical facilities to notify local law enforcement within 24 hours of collecting sexual assault evidence. Law enforcement agencies must retrieve the evidence kit within 3 business days of being notified, and will have up to 7 business days to submit the evidence for testing at the State Police or municipal crime lab. The bill requires the lab to test each kit within 30 days of receipt.
The criminal justice reform bill allows the Secretary of EOPSS to incrementally phase in sexual assault kit tracking systems, but requires all jurisdictions to be fully compliant by December 1, 2019.
Governor Baker has until April 14 to sign the bill into law.