A bill that passed Tuesday in the Arkansas House of Representatives would require health care providers to enter rape-kit evidence into an online tracking system maintained by the state Crime Laboratory.
House Bill 1567 passed 95-0, with five members not voting. It went to the Senate on Tuesday, where it was read twice and referred to the Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
The bill's lead sponsor is state Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs.
Kermit B. Channell II, executive director of the state Crime Lab, said the bill is the next step in a process that began in 2015. The Legislature passed Act 1168 that year. It established a website -- crimelabsakt.arkansas.gov/SexualAssaultKitTracking -- that enables the tracking of sexual-assault evidence kits, which are also known as rape kits.
Victims can use a computer to track their kits through the secure system -- from the hospital to law enforcement to the Crime Lab -- and know when the kits have been processed, Channell said. Authorized medical, law enforcement and Crime Lab personnel also have access to the information, according to the website.
But compliance wasn't great, Channell said.
House Bill 1567 would fix that by making it mandatory to enter the information, he said.
"The system rolled out in all hospitals," said Channell. "We try to encourage law enforcement to use it. We just don't have wholesale buy-in yet."
If a victim noticed that her rape kit is stalled somewhere in the system, she can notify the Crime Lab. Channell said he can then pick up the phone and call the hospital or law enforcement agency and ask if there is a problem.
Channell said the Crime Lab is the only facility in Arkansas that can do DNA testing on the kits. Even if prosecutors don't plan to press charges in a case, Channell still wants rape kits from those cases to be sent to the Crime Lab so they can be DNA-tested. That way, criminals can be linked to other cases.
Channell was in New York City on Tuesday to attend a news conference held by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.
Vance announced the results of his office's $38 million initiative to test rape kits in states across the country. It was called The Manhattan District Attorney's Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Grant Program.
Money for the program came from criminal asset forfeiture funds from settlements with international banks that violated U.S. sanctions, according to a report Vance issued Tuesday called "Test Every Kit." Testing a single sexual assault kit costs on average between $1,000 and $1,500.
"Since the program began in September 2015, more than 55,000 rape kits have been tested in 32 jurisdictions spanning 20 states," according to a news release from Vance's office. "More than 18,803 newly developed DNA profiles were uploaded into the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Combined DNA Index System."
The investment has yielded 186 new arrests and 64 new convictions, including 47 felony sexual assault convictions, according to the release.
"Testing every rape kit is our best practice and our moral imperative -- both to ensure survivors receive the support and action they deserve, and to ensure that these backlogs never happen again," Vance said. "With our $38 million investment, we have begun to rectify what has been a tragic failure of government and law enforcement at all levels -- a decades-long, systematic denial of equal rights for women in the justice system.
"As we know from our experience clearing New York City's backlog, the testing of these 55,000 kits will continue to produce new investigations, arrests and prosecutions in cities and states across the country for years to come," he said.
"Dedicated funding streams are necessary to end the backlog, but they are not sufficient -- states must also rewrite their laws. Today we're calling on states across the country to mandate the timely testing of rape kits, and to eliminate statutes of limitation for felony sexual assault," he said.
Vance touted Arkansas as a success story. It's one of seven states that has eliminated or almost eliminated a backlog of rape kits with help from his office.
"Even though Arkansas does not currently have a statute requiring the submission of all kits, most agencies have adopted the policy to do so," according to the report from his office.
"Arkansas, through this grant, afforded the lab the opportunity to start a 'culture' change in law enforcement with respect to the benefits of obtaining DNA profiles which would potentially help their case and connect serial criminals. This was the first step in a holistic, victim-centered approach to sexual assault investigation for the state of Arkansas."
The Arkansas Crime Lab received a $97,121 grant in 2015 from Vance's office to process about 1,300 rape kits that had been sitting on shelves in law enforcement offices. Channell said those kits came from Arkansas' 10 largest law enforcement agencies. About 800 of the kits came from the Little Rock Police Department.
Out of the 1,300 shelved kits they received, Channell said they got 179 hits in the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, which allows federal, state and local forensic laboratories to exchange and compare DNA profiles electronically.
They also got hits on two known sexual predators who were incarcerated.
"We were able to add additional victims to their crime spree," he said.
Channell said it took a couple of years to work through all 1,300 kits, but now the state has a backlog of 450 cases that have come in since then. One problem is keeping DNA analysts, he said. They often find higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
Channell said the wait in Arkansas is about 5½ months to get a rape kit processed. He's hoping to cut that to 45 days within a year.
Lundstrum's bill gives the Crime Lab 60 days to test the kits and sets other time limits along the chain of possession.
According to the bill, starting July 1, the Crime Lab will test all sexual-assault collection kits that are received from law enforcement agencies with the goal of developing DNA profiles that can be entered into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System.
Channell said the Crime Lab serves law enforcement agencies across the state, and it normally receives about 60 sexual-assault kits each month. If a predator is still at large or a trial is coming up, the kits can be put on a fast track so prosecutors can get them back without waiting for five months.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance makes a statement in New York, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.
A Section on 03/13/2019
Print Headline: Bill aimed at tracking rape-kit evidence OK'd in Arkansas House with 95-0 vote