By EMMA FIDEL
LANSING, Mich. (AP) – When 11,000 untested rape kits were discovered in Detroit in 2009, Michigan officials faced two major questions going forward: How to resolve the backlog, and how to keep new rape kits from meeting the same fate.
As analysis of those kits continues, lawmakers are considering legislation to speed up testing for future rape kits, which contain DNA and other evidence collected after a reported sexual assault. The state House unanimously passed a bill Thursday that would set time limits for kit retrieval and analysis by law enforcement.
The bill would require police to obtain a kit from a health care facility within 14 days of being notified. They would have 14 more days to submit the kit to a lab, where it would need to be analyzed within 90 days. DNA profiles compiled from rape kits would be uploaded into state and national databases.
Any kit not released to law enforcement would have to be stored by the health care facility for at least a year.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who has led efforts to sort out the backlog, said the legislation takes a strong stand for public safety.
“What those time standards will do is make sure that this problem never recurs, and there’s never another sexual assault victim in this state … who will wait years for justice,” Worthy said.
Victim advocacy, criminal justice and law enforcement representatives collaborated on the bill, which doesn’t affect the backlog.
The measure now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said it’s likely to quickly pass. Jones, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, are introducing companion Senate bills.
The average laboratory turnaround time was about 79 days for new rape kits in budget year 2013, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency. That number has dropped to 53 days since March, but it doesn’t account for time spent uploading the DNA profiles.
Michigan State Police hasn’t said how much caseloads are projected to increase as a result of the bill, or how many new staff members it might need. The bill doesn’t include funding, and doesn’t create sanctions for failing to meet the timeframe. Worthy said sanctions could be established later.
Some law enforcement officials are concerned the legislation could misdirect resources by requiring unneeded analysis of certain kits, said Bob Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. The association supports the legislation, he said.
Lt. Patrick Merrill, the detective unit commander for Grand Rapids Police, said only about 25 percent of the rape kits his department receives are tested because most others aren’t associated with a prosecution case. The identity of an alleged perpetrator is often undisputed, which could also make DNA testing unnecessary, he said.
“We do a lot of filtering on the front end on whether a kit warrants being sent in or not,” Merrill said. “We’ve got special procedures for (criminal sexual conduct) complaints. We’ve got a whole matrix for how to handle them.”
Worthy and other advocates argued that almost all kits need testing. Uploading a DNA profile associated with any alleged rape into state and national databases could help solve other cases, since most rapists are serial offenders and rapes are often associated with other crimes, said Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz, who is president-elect of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.
Any sexual assault prosecution should include a rape kit analysis, whether or not the alleged perpetrator acknowledges he had sex with the alleged victim, because a kit analysis “is among the most powerful tools” in court, Worthy said. Rape kit analysis can “provide a map” of “specific acts” that occurred, she said, and juries would be skeptical if a test wasn’t conducted.
The bill is one component of a long, complicated process to improve how sexual assaults are handled in Michigan and across the country.
“We have many other issues to deal with. This is not over,” Worthy said. “We have to deal with tracking, because if you can track a package that you get from, let’s say, Amazon online … then we certainly should be able to track a rape kit from when it’s taken, and the victim should know where it is at all times.”
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