California Moves to End Rape Kit Backlog


When someone is raped and wants the perpetrator caught and prosecuted, it’s essential that the victim provide forensic evidence of the assault to law enforcement. A “rape kit” is the collection of biological evidence that can lead to an identification of the perpetrator’s DNA. But tragically, rape kits are not always tested in a timely manner or at all. With 400,000 of these kits believed to be in storage units and untested nationally, there is an urgent need to pass legislation to end these practices. Very few states have done so.

But California is no longer one of them. On September 30, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 1517 into law. Introduced by Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, the bill titled “DNA Evidence” created a set of guidelines to be used by law enforcement when collecting and testing rape kits from victims. Specifically, the bill establishes timelines for sending rape kits to crime laboratories and submitting DNA evidence to CODIS, a national database for DNA profiles.

The bill specifies that a rape kit be submitted to a laboratory “within 20 days after it is booked into evidence.”  DNA samples must then be uploaded to CODIS and a profile created “no later than 120 days after initially receiving the evidence.” The bill also requires law enforcement agencies to inform sexual assault victims if the law enforcement agency elects not to analyze DNA evidence within the time frame specified above.

AB 1517 capped six years of advocacy in California by women activists and the organization Human Rights Watch. In attempting to eliminate the rape kit backlog, there have been two objectives: improving the timeliness of testing and analyzing all kits. Timing is crucial for catching rapists before they commit additional crimes, and testing all kits can produce evidence of rapists who have committed serial rapes.

Back in 2011, the California Department of Justice’s Bureau of Forensic Services issued a new protocol requiring an improved timeline for testing kits. It mandated quick delivery to a state laboratory of as many as three evidence samples after collection from a rape kit, and processing of those samples within 15 business days. However, this protocol applied only to the state’s regionally run laboratories, which serve about a quarter of California’s population.

Practices in large local California laboratories differ from those that are state-run. While state labs were now mandated to reduce turn-around times, local labs had no such requirements. Something needed to be done to provide equal justice to rape victims no matter where they lived.

Stepping up to lead the fight was Assemblymember Skinner. Along with her, Oakland D.A. Nancy O’Malley—who had discovered 1,900 untested rape kits in Alameda County—and the anti-sexual assault organizations CALCASA and Natasha’s Justice Project sponsored AB 1517. After hearings and negotiations with law enforcement, the bill was overwhelmingly approved by the state legislature. Said Skinner,

Testing this evidence gets the DNA from the crime into a national data base, lets rape victims know we care and helps ensure that rapists are caught and convicted.

Meanwhile, on the national front, Congress approved the reauthorization of HR 4323, the Debbie Smith Act, and President Obama signed it into law on September 29. The bill, originally authored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney and approved in 2004, funded $151 million annually for the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program and $13 million for education and training. The current legislation will continue the original funding until 2019, including $30 million for the rape kit backlog “forensic exam program.”

Funds will thus continue to be available to hire and train technicians who will analyze samples and upload DNA evidence to CODIS.  Without additional skilled professionals, though, the elimination of existing as well as future backlogs cannot be guaranteed.

California has moved to solve the rape kit backlog from the top down and by grass roots activism, creating a model that can be replicated throughout the country. Unless we require criminal justice agencies everywhere to be more responsive to rape victims and legislatures to fund the work, DNA evidence will not be processed and backlogs will remain. The challenge now is to ensure that guidelines like those in AB1517 are implemented universally and enforced at all levels of government.

Image of DNA from Flickr user Micah Baldwin under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Susan Rose served for eight years on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and is the former executive director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women. She is active with Human Rights Watch.