In 2016, an Idaho state audit uncovered a backlog of untested sexual assault kits — more than 1,000 — sitting in storage at law enforcement agencies and labs statewide.
The kits represented more than 1,000 people who were raped in the state of Idaho, and then went through the traumatic process of having a detailed medical exam to collect DNA and other evidence — only to have the kits sitting, literally, untouched in a box. And for most of those people, there was no easy way to get information about their test kits, their case, and whether their assailant had also attacked others.
Idaho was one of many states — including Pennsylvania — to uncover a backlog of rape kits in recent years. And, like Pennsylvania, the northwest state passed a law that has resulted in the clearing of the backlog, and a faster turnaround of rape kits moving forward.
But Idaho didn’t stop there: In 2017, it became the first state to implement a rape kit tracking system. This system allows survivors to follow information about their medical exams from the hospital, to the local law enforcement agency, to the lab where it is analyzed and to final disposition. Other authorized individuals, such as law enforcement agents or medical staff, can also access the system, helping to speed up arrests. In a 2016 study by advocacy group End the Backlog, survivors said receiving updates about the status of their cases also helped them make informed choices, which fosters empowerment, and generally promotes healing.
“Tracking systems are good for criminal justice as a whole and make law enforcement’s job easier by following crucial evidence from place to place,” according to End the Backlog.
“With these systems we can monitor if rape kits are moving through the system as they should by law,” according to End the Backlog. “The system can be set up to notify various stakeholders if a kit gets stuck at one point in the process, thereby alerting everyone involved in rape kit handling to the error. Tracking systems are good for criminal justice as a whole and make law enforcement’s job easier by following crucial evidence from place to place.”
Today, 38 states around the country have implemented rape kit tracking systems. Pennsylvania is not one of them — at least, not yet.
At the beginning of the current legislative session, Pennsylvania House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton and state Sen. Katie Muth introduced bills in the state House and Senate, proposing a statewide rape kit tracking system. The system, which would be housed within the Pennsylvania State Police, “would allow victims to login anytime to access the status of their evidence — where it is currently located, when it was submitted, and who to contact for help and more information,” according to a memo issued by McClinton, who represents the 191st District, including Delaware and Philadelphia counties.
In an attempt to pressure the Republican majority to vote on the bills, McClinton and Muth are hosting a joint House & Senate Democratic Policy Committee Hearing about the legislation on September 23 from 10am to noon. You can register for the virtual portion of the hearing here.
A problem on a shocking scale
On average, 463,634 U.S. citizens age 12 and up are sexually assaulted each year, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Out of 1,000 sexual assaults, only 25 perpetrators will be incarcerated, per RAINN. According to the most recent data available from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, there were 4,466 reported rapes across the state in 2019, the last year for which data is available.
When a survivor experiences an assault, they may choose to participate in a sexual assault forensic exam. A rape kit is used throughout the exam and includes a checklist, materials and instructions. It also includes envelopes and containers to store DNA collected during the exam.
Rape kits safely stores evidence while survivors decide if they’d like to report their assault. If a survivor does decide to report, the use of the stored DNA evidence will increase the likelihood of prosecution, according to RAINN.
McClinton says she introduced this bill to create accountability on behalf of survivors in Pennsylvania. “There are still too many sexual assault survivors who are brave enough to come forward and go through the, in many cases, intrusive medical procedures, but they still can’t get information about their case, and they go for months without receiving any answers,” McClinton says.
“You wouldn’t not get blood work back, right? You wouldn’t not get a lab result back,” says Muth. “So why is it sometimes over a year or never that these survivors don’t get their evidence?”
Muth, who is herself a sexual assault survivor, says she wants members of the state Senate to understand the invasive procedures that survivors go through with no promise of receiving answers about their rape kit.
“You wouldn’t not get blood work back, right? You wouldn’t not get a lab result back,” says Muth, who represents the 44th District, including parts of Berks County, Chester County and Montgomery County. “So why is it sometimes over a year or never that these survivors don’t get their evidence? It’s incredibly difficult to deal with the ebbs and flows of healing. To be anxiously awaiting this thing that may never come just adds to the mental burden.”
How it works
To craft the legislation, McClinton and Muth consulted with the state’s Office of the Victim Advocate and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), a survivor advocacy group; PCAR looked to what other states, including Idaho, have done to create a solution for Pennsylvania.
There are a variety of ways states can implement a rape kit tracking system. In Connecticut, for instance, the state’s Alliance to End Sexual Violence offers a comprehensive list of services and details about exactly what survivors can learn about their kit, including the dates of the exam, when police were told to pick up the evidence, when they submitted it to the lab, and when the testing was complete. They also can learn if the DNA sample matches a profile in any DNA data bank. Oklahoma state police offers a detailed FAQ on its website about what information means and how survivors can use it, including what to do if they change their mind about having it tested.
Certain states build their system internally. Others contract with third-party systems for their software, such as Sockeye and Forensic Advantage. Costs of instituting a rape track kit vary by the technology used and population, from $1.5 million in Texas to $100,000 in Virginia.
McClinton’s and Muth’s bills (House Bill 1848 and Senate Bill 860) have sat in their respective chambers’ judiciary committees since September 2021.
In late April, McClinton and Muth held a press conference alongside PCAR representatives and a survivor who shared their experience reporting their sexual assault in an effort to prod Republicans in charge of committees in both houses to act. Both legislators say there’s been no movement on the bills after the April press conference.
“There’s clearly a barrier of moral concern,” Muth says. “Individual members of the majority party care about this, but it isn’t enough.”
In a statement, Senate Chair Lisa Baker said “it is incumbent upon legislators to do all that we can to help ensure that our communities are safe and that abuse and assault survivors are supported,” though she did not indicate if she would push the tracking system bill for a vote.
House Chair Rob Kauffman stated that a vote on the bills would be “premature” as the General Assembly awaits the results of a feasibility report mandated by a bill passed in July. Kauffman is referring to Act 70 of 2022, which instructed the Pennslyvania State Police and PCAR to conduct a study that examines what resources are required to implement a rape kit tracking system and issue its results within 12 months.
“There’s still time, so anybody who is compelled, feel free to reach out to your local lawmaker so that we can push to get this done this fall,” McClinton says.
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