Lawmakers, advocates aim to continue rape kit reform this legislative session

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A Tulsa Police Department sexual assault evidence collection kit. Photo courtesy NewsOn6
Though Oklahoma made strides last year in confronting the state’s number of untested rape kits, advocates and lawmakers are asking the Legislature to consider more reform this session.

A proposed bill would aim to streamline the process of testing rape kits and create a system to track how they’re being tested and the outcome of cases that involve sexual assault.

Gov. Mary Fallin issued an executive order last year that created a 17-member task force to determine the number of untested DNA collection kits in the more than 300 law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma.

The order required agencies to complete an audit of their untested kits by Dec. 30, 2017. However, when the deadline passed only 60 percent of sheriff’s offices and less than half of police departments responded. Fallin set a new deadline for Feb. 15, and agencies that don’t comply risk losing federal funding administered by state agencies.

The number of untested rape kits in Oklahoma is unknown, and no state agency oversees or tracks data on kits or on charges and convictions made in sexual assault cases.

However, House Bill 2929 by Rep. Monroe Nichols, a Democrat from Tulsa, would mandate the testing of rape kits and require law enforcement to process the evidence in a limited timeframe.

Rep. Monroe Nichols

Under the proposal, victims of sexual assault would be allowed to learn of the status and results of their sexual assault examinations and evidence kits.

“The big goal here is understanding certain things we need to do about the (rape kit) backlog that exists and then not making it worse,” Nichols said.

Nichols is working on the legislation with Danielle Tudor  a rape survivor from Oregon and member of Fallin’s task force — and the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that developed the national End The Backlog campaign to identify untested rape kits.

Tudor said the rape kit audit task force aims to make recommendations on the language of the proposed bill before it moves forward. The suggestions could include exceptions for kits that do not need to be tested and mandates for how long law enforcement agencies must keep rape kits in their custody.

“We (Oklahoma) cannot afford not to take any steps forward,” Tudor said. “We can’t stay where we’re at. We can’t stay stagnant. We have made some progress, and we have to keep moving forward, and this is not going to happen overnight.”

House Bill 2929

The current language of the bill would require health care professionals, if requested by the victim, to notify law enforcement of a potential sexual assault within 24 hours. Health care professionals also would be required to give a victim the results of his or her sexual assault examination.

Under the bill, law enforcement agencies would collect results of a sexual assault examination and other evidence within seven days of receiving a sexual assault report. The agency would then have 15 days to submit the rape kit to a lab for testing.

Within 10 days of the agency sending the kit off for testing, the bill would require it to notify the victim of the kit’s status and whether evidence matched another DNA sample.

If the agency plans to destroy the kit, it must notify the victim at least 60 days prior.

We can’t stay where we’re at. We can’t stay stagnant.We have made some progress, and we have to keep moving forward, and this is not going to happen overnight.” – Danielle Tudor 

The bill also would require law enforcement agencies to report quarterly data to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation on reported sexual assaults in their jurisdictions, statistics on rape kits and the number of charges filed and convictions obtained in sexual assault cases.

Under the legislation, OSBI would issue an annual report with the data beginning Jan. 1, 2019.

“The most important thing about all of this is there’s a societal reason why we should be doing all of this stuff. … There’s thousands of victims of sexual assault who probably have no clue what happened to their kit or case,” Nichols said.

“The other part of the bill is to make sure those victims are kept kind of in the loop with what’s going on.”

By Jan. 1, 2019, the bill would require law enforcement agencies to have an average completion rate of 90 days or less to process rape kits. By 2020, agencies would have an average of 60 days.

The proposed bill, which is being considered by the House Judiciary committee, would go into effect Sept. 1.

“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Nichols said. “It’s an issue about safety and justice, and I think it’s something we can all kind of join hands in and get behind.”

A national movement

Agenciesin Oklahoma generally do not test kits if the victim is uncooperative or they believe they know who the alleged offender is. Rape kits are often left to gather dust in evidence rooms or are destroyed.

In recent years, there has been a nationwide effort to determine the number of untested rape kits and test them. Researchers and proponents say testing old kits can catch serial rapists.

Some states, including Connecticut, Ohio and Michigan, have laws that mandate submission of all rape kits for testing in a timely manner.

A few states — Oregon, Pennsylvania and Kentucky — have laws that give victims of sexual assault the right to know of the status of their kits.

Texas is crowdfunding an effort to process untested rape kits.

Tudor said although mandating law enforcement agencies to audit their untested kits was a big step, the state needs to have a plan moving forward.

“We’ve got the dialogue going,” Tudor said. “I mean, that’s huge because the dialogue just had not been there until last year.

“Now it’s just to keep moving forward, and unfortunately I think those will be baby steps, but they are steps. I think they are accomplishments that we’ll have to take up one piece at a time.”

Related reading:

For some law enforcement agencies, audit of untested rape kits a daunting task

Soul Survivors: Rape victims face uneasy path to new laws

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Contact: Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044.
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