Sexual assault is an issue that’s garnered plenty of attention in recent years, from the #MeToo movement to the recent revelations regarding a longstanding pattern of sexual abuse perpetrated by R&B superstar R. Kelly. In North Carolina, it’s also a very serious issue, with an average of 36 sexual assault evidence kits collected every week. The problem here in the Tar Heel state is that law enforcement authorities have historically lacked the resources to do much about the problem, with the majority of those kits sitting in storage for lack of the funds to scientifically test and follow up on them.
In January, however, state lawmakers proposed a bill that aims to fix that unacceptable situation. The bill, known as the Standing Up For Rape Victims Act, would introduce a series of reforms and funding streams that would change the way law enforcement deals with the ever-increasing backlogs of sexual assault kits (now numbering over 15,000) and cases that have built up over the last several decades.
The first major change that the measure would put in place would be to allocate a $6 million fund dedicated to helping law enforcement clear much of the existing backlog over the next two years by sending the kits to accredited laboratories for immediate testing, and follow-up by the relevant police jurisdictions. The goal, the bill’s sponsors hope, is to deliver long-delayed justice for the victims and survivors of sexual assault spread all across the state.
To prevent the situation from repeating itself, the bill would also change much about the way future sexual assault evidence and cases are handled. First, hospitals that collect such kits would have 24 hours within which to notify law enforcement that they’ve collected evidence after a sexual assault victim seeks treatment. Then, each kit would be sent to the State Crime Lab within 45 days for genetic and forensic testing, and law enforcement would have a period of 15 days to let the State Crime Lab know if the resulting genetic fingerprint appears in the national CODIS database.
Since the additional demand placed on the State Crime Lab will be considerable, the measure would also allocate $800,000 in recurring funding to help them hire the additional staff required to complete the work accurately and in keeping with the statutory deadlines. Lawmakers hope to create a system capable of keeping up with current and future caseloads so that no victim will ever again find themselves waiting for law enforcement to act.
Ensuring quick testing of all collected sexual assault kits should also increase the odds that perpetrators will be located and charged with the crime. According to the Keller Law Offices, which litigates matters involving such evidence, “For the most accurate results, and to ensure that serial rapists are identified as early as possible, testing of DNA evidence collected in sexual assault kits should not be postponed.” Any delays could introduce inaccuracies and may allow perpetrators to escape justice by calling the validity of testing results into question.
If the measure survives the legislative process, it would go a long way toward ending the suffering of a great many sexual assault survivors and their loved ones. It would grant a great many of them a chance at regaining some normalcy and the comfort of knowing that their attacker is no longer at large, possibly committing further assaults against others. It should also help make it clear to would-be perpetrators that their odds of escaping justice for their crimes are next to nil. In the end, the Standing Up For Rape Victims Act would finally address an issue that has irrevocably changed so many lives in the state, and hopefully help to put an end to a scourge that we, as a community, have ignored for far too long already.