A bill to quantify untested rape kits in Alaska is nearly ready for the House floor after a House Finance Committee hearing Friday.
Last year, the State learned that there were over 3,000 sexual assault kits in the possession of law enforcement that had not been tested.
In October, Alaska received a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to test about 1,000 kits held by the Alaska State Troopers.
While there is no statute of limitations for most types of sexual assault in Alaska, there are exceptions. Notably, there is a ten-year limitation on prosecution when the offender “engages in sexual contact with a person who the offender knows is mentally incapable, incapacitated, or unaware that a sexual act is being committed.”
Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) pre-filed a bill (HB 31) that would have mandated testing of sexual assault kits within 18 months and established a standard process for tracking the kits.
However, Tarr testified Friday in a hearing, “The situation in Alaska is dismal, more problematic than we knew.”
Tarr said that the bill version establishing the 18-month limit, prior to knowing how many kits remain untested, got ahead of itself.
Many of the state’s 200 law enforcement agencies did not voluntarily participate in an audit conducted by the administration of Gov. Bill Walker.
A committee substitute for HB 31 will first develop a report by November 1 that tabulates the number of untested sexual assault kits held by every State, municipal, and tribal law enforcement agency. It will also record the date each kit was collected.
“Let’s get the true number of what the backlog is and then, when we go forward, let’s approach… how are we going to pay to test the backlog and prioritize that, and then what will be the appropriate time limit on the kits that are more current ones,” Tarr told the committee.
She said the 18-month limit may have to be extended based on the results of the report and the costs.
An initial fiscal note estimated HB 31 would cost $265,000 per year, but the provisions creating a new tracking system and requiring the backlog to be cleared — at a cost of $1,500 per kit — were stripped out of the CS.
Tarr said the CS will have a zero fiscal note. For the future, she is exploring ways to integrate rape kit tracking into existing State databases so a new database doesn’t have to be built.
House Finance adopted the CS during a three-minute introductory hearing March 13. Since that time, the committee has been tied up with the budget and its deficit reduction plan (HB 115), delaying a second hearing on HB 31.
Tarr noted Friday that there are over 7,000 rapes in Alaska every year, so in the time since HB 31 was referred to House Finance on February 8, about 1,000 Alaskans have been raped.
A rape kit might not be tested because the evidence is not necessary for the case at hand, but the kit might link the offender to other rapes, said Tarr.
She pointed to an Alaska Dispatch News article that came out the day she pre-filed HB 31. The article documents the prosecution of Clifford Lee, who committed four rapes and one attempted rape in 2014.
“The thinking used to be that there was one perpetrator, one victim,” Tarr told House Finance. “But… what we’ve learned is that there are individuals that are serial criminals, that have multiple victims.”
After his arrest in 2014, sexual assault kits linked Lee to unsolved rapes in 2001 and 2005.
The case highlights the need to test every sexual assault kit, Tarr argued.
“What we need to know is which ones are out there that are untested,” she said. “The effort is really to — to the extent that the victim will participate — get those kits to a lab for testing.”
The CS adds three avenues for sexual assault victims who are 16 or older. They can perform the test as part of a law enforcement effort or they can be tested and simply file a medical report if they are not prepared to press charges. They also have the option of being tested anonymously.
“That was a difficult one for me to accept,” Tarr said.
Tarr told House Finance she based the two options that don’t involve law enforcement on a white paper from the federal Office on Violence Against Women.
“One of the things that we know happens with sexual assault is that it is a power-over situation, and one of the immediate things that we want to do when someone is a victim of sexual assault is to start to give their power back to them,” explained Jayne Andreen, Interim Executive Director of the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
Andreen said the goal is to test all victims for sexually-transmitted infections and collect the forensic evidence, but victims are traumatized in the aftermath of rape. Giving them the option to not engage directly with law enforcement is part of giving their power back, she said.
Though two don’t lead to immediate prosecution, the three options in the CS all result in sexual assault kits ending up in the hands of law enforcement. That way, those who choose not to press charges can reconsider after weeks or even months.
“Not all individuals are going to want to press charges, or might not want to press charges at the time of the assault,” Tarr said, “but because collecting the evidence is time-sensitive, you don’t really have the option of really thinking that through. You have a very limited time window in which that evidence can be collected and be admissible for any kind of court case.”
The first two sections of the CS explicitly add sexual assault training to existing domestic violence training that all police receive.
“The goal of section 1 and section 2 is to create a standard protocol so that all individuals who go through training to become a law enforcement officer in the state of Alaska will receive training in sexual assault response,” Tarr said.
HB 31 is part of a nationwide effort to process untested sexual assault kits, Tarr told the committee.
She cited the city of Detroit, which has nearly cleared a backlog of 11,000 untested kits that were found in 2009.
On the Wednesday edition of her show Full Frontal, comedian Samantha Bee had a feel-good, Schoolhouse Rock-style segment explaining how, with only moments left in the session, the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill requiring sexual assault kits to be tested.
House Finance will probably move HB 31 from committee after the bill’s next hearing, Tuesday, April 4. House Finance Co-chair Neal Foster (D-Nome) told committee members to have amendments submitted by Monday.