Massachusetts lawmakers have approved legislation aimed at making sure evidence in sexual assault cases is swiftly tested, as a way of keeping such cases from languishing in the criminal justice system.
The measure is part of a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that House and Senate lawmakers passed Wednesday. It now goes to the governor to either challenge or sign the bill.
If signed, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security would enact a statewide sexual assault evidence kit tracking system that would mandate an audit of rape kits and timely testing of backlogged and newly collected evidence.
Currently, the number of untested rape evidence kits in Massachusetts is undetermined. A 2015 state audit received information from only 75 of 351 municipal police departments. Although 83 percent of responding agencies recorded no untested kits, the biggest 10 police agencies did not respond.
“With such a limited response, it was basically ineffective,” said Ilse Knecht, a policy expert with the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national sexual assault victims advocacy group. “After survivors go through an invasive exam with the expectation that it will bring closure and stop others from getting hurt, they need better results.”
To obtain an evidence kit, survivors must undergo a lengthy process when most would rather rid any trace of the assault from their bodies, said Knecht. After waiting to be seen by a medical professional, victims are photographed, asked to undress, and probed for DNA evidence.
In many jurisdictions, large numbers of unexamined evidence kits mean that survivors have little hope that their assailants will be caught — and fear that they could strike again, Knecht said. She also pointed out that serial offenders pose a public safety concern for communities when police search for the offender without all available evidence.
These issues are exacerbated across the nation as many states lack policies requiring law enforcement to count, track, or test rape kits, Knecht said. In the event that kits are analyzed, survivors are rarely contacted or alerted if someone in custody matches their kit.
Under the new policy, evidence kits would be handed over to law enforcement agencies within three days and police agencies would have a week to deliver kits to crime labs.
The crime lab would then have a month to analyze the kit. All previously held kits would also be turned over to law enforcement and analyzed within a year of passing the bill. The status of these kits would be available to survivors through an anonymous database throughout the process.
“The goal is to create a comprehensive system which will help survivors across the state that would provide positive results for survivors,” said Representative Bradley Jones of North Reading, the House Republican leader and a sponsor of the bill.
“By putting timelines in place, even if agencies need extra time, it would certainly be better than unprocessed cases on the shelf,” he added.
With quicker evidence processing, the results could lead to faster arrests and identification of serial offenders, according to Jones. But the expedited timeline has caused concern for some prosecutors and law enforcement agencies.
“It’s a laudable goal to have a better tracking system for all cases as they go through the justice system,” said Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe. “But it’s an enormous amount of work for departments, as there are many other parts in the bill.”
If the bill is signed in its current state, a plan to audit current cases and for the system’s rollout would be due to the governor and judiciary committee no later than the end of June. All agencies would also have one year to begin participation in the system and become compliant by Dec. 1, 2019.
“There are better technologies available now that may allow for it to take place in a way that is less costly and faster than it was 25 years ago,” O’Keefe said. “So there is time, but we’ll see if there are resources to reach the deadline.”
Although the bill cites suggested funding resources, O’Keefe raised concerns about setting up the system and transportation of the kits under the current deadline. But advocates insisted the new rules were not unreasonable.
“There is always foot-dragging to change. It’s difficult,” said Knecht. “Other communities and states have done this. It really takes political action and commitment to get it done.”