The House unanimously passed Friday a bill that will quantify the untested rape kits throughout Alaska so the State can determine how best to clear the backlog.
Gov. Bill Walker’s administration began a statewide audit of the kits last year. Using federal grant money, the State began testing a backlog of sexual assault kits in possession of the Alaska State Troopers, but participation in the audit by municipal and tribal law enforcement agencies was voluntary.
HB 31 will require all 200 law enforcement agencies in Alaska to count and date their untested rape kits. The information will be compiled in a report by November 1.
Rep. Dan Saddler (R-Eagle River) said he cautiously supports the bill as a balance between oversight and micromanagement.
In a dig, Saddler said he would have hoped Department of Public Safety (DPS) Commissioner Walt Monegan would have taken care of the audit gaps himself.
“It appears… that that is not the case,” said Saddler.
Tarr said there are at least 3,600 untested sexual assault kits in Alaska.
“The system is very, very broken,” she said. “Until we have a full picture of how many untested kits there are, we can’t really move forward.”
Originally, HB 31 would have cleared the backlog and required all rape kits to be tested within 18 months.
Tarr said the information collected through the new version of HB 31 will help legislators determine the cost of testing all the kits and whether an 18-month limit is realistic.
Rep. Gary Knopp (R-Soldotna) and Rep. DeLena Johnson (R-Palmer) both said Friday that they opposed the original version of the bill, but they supported the House Finance Committee substitute without the 18-month mandate.
“I really think the process worked in this particular case,” Johnson said.
HB 31 contains what Tarr called the “gold standard in victim reporting options.”
Evidence of sexual assault has to be collected within 72 hours to be viable, she said. But, “You want to have a program that is very victim-centered.”
To that end, HB 31 allows collection of the evidence while maintaining the anonymity of the victim. Victims can also file an identifying medical report that does not involve law enforcement.
An amendment in House Finance, supported by Tarr, adjusted the age at which a victim can choose how to report rape from 16 to 18. Tarr explained in a hearing that there are already statutes that mandate reporting for sexual assault of a minor.
The reporting options allow victims time to heal before potentially filing charges, Tarr said. Yet the sexual assault kits with the important DNA evidence still make it into the hands of law enforcement for testing.
“We know that DNA evidence can get dangerous criminals off our streets,” Tarr told the House.
Tarr pointed to the story of Clifford Lee, covered by Alaska Dispatch News. Lee committed multiple rapes in 2014. DNA evidence from those rapes linked Lee to unsolved rapes in 2001 and 2005.
Lee’s story “really motivates me to work on this issue,” said Tarr.
“I believe as strong as ever that victims deserve justice, and this is part of getting them justice,” she said of HB 31.
The bill adds sexual assault training to the domestic violence training required of law enforcement officers in Alaska. The House Finance amendment clarifies that the training should last at least 12 hours for each subject.
Rep. Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole) thanked DPS Friday for already following that standard prior to passage of the bill.