(AP) — Legislation aimed at prioritizing the testing of rape kits for possible DNA evidence is awaiting Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s signature before becoming law.
The language was included in an omnibus criminal justice overhaul bill approved by the Massachusetts House and Senate this week. The bill includes a requirement that all existing untested kits associated with a reported crime be submitted for testing within 180 days.
Exactly how many untested rape kits exist in Massachusetts isn’t clear. In 2015 state public safety officials requested reports from local police departments on the number of untested rape kits in their possession, but only 75 of 351 departments responded.
The bill also calls for the development of a tracking system that will provide sexual assault victims with continuous access to information on their kit, from their initial collection by law enforcement, through the testing and storage process.
A task force that would be created would also be charged with identifying ways to pay for the testing, including looking at existing grant programs.
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, head of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association, said he supports efforts to reduce rape kit backlogs. He said Chelsea doesn’t have a backlog and he hasn’t seen overwhelming backlogs in other communities.
“One hundred and eighty days seems more than reasonable,” Kyes said, referring to the bill’s deadline for submitting kits for testing.
Republican state Rep. Bradley Jones pushed for the legislation. He said forensic evidence obtained from rape kits is critical to helping law enforcement connect individuals to unsolved crimes, but can also be used to help exonerate an innocent person.
“The reforms adopted today by the House and Senate send a clear message to survivors of sexual assault that the commonwealth is fully invested in helping them achieve justice and hopefully realize a sense of healing after enduring such a traumatic experience,” Jones said.
Passage of the legislation also was welcomed by activists from the New York-based Joyful Heart Foundation, a sexual assault victims advocacy group pressing for comprehensive rape kit legislation in every state.
“The rape kit reforms in the omnibus criminal justice bill send a message to survivors that they, and their cases, matter,” Ilse Knecht, the group’s policy director, said in a statement after the bill was sent to Baker’s desk Wednesday. “They also send a clear message to perpetrators that they will be held accountable for their crimes.”
The proposal also has the backing of Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey’s office.
A spokesman for Baker said the administration is pleased lawmakers approved the criminal justice overhaul and will give it a careful review.
In 2016 Baker signed a bill requiring sexual assault evidence be preserved for at least 15 years. Supporters said one goal of the law was to give women who are dealing with trauma after an assault more time before pursuing charges against their attacker.
Previous state law required rape evidence kits be held for only 6 months unless the victim filed a formal report with law enforcement.
Other cities and states have begun to chip away at rape kits backlogs.
In Albuquerque, Mayor Tim Keller signed an executive order earlier this year pressing police to develop a plan to process about 4,000 evidence kits in the city’s crime lab.
In Detroit, about 600 rape kits that remained from more than 11,000 found in a Detroit police property storage facility in 2009 are being processed. Prosecutors say 130 people have been convicted and 818 serial sex offenders have been identified since authorities started investigating earlier batches of the kits.
And in Ohio, the state attorney general announced earlier this year that nearly 14,000 previously untested rape kits have now been analyzed and that charges have been filed against hundreds of suspects as a result of matches since an initiative was launched in 2011 to check previously untested kits for evidence.