Georgia Republican Stops Effort to Tackle Rape Kit Backlog

The bill's sponsor said the measure institutes a process to tackle a backlog of hundreds of rape kits discovered in recent investigations.

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Scott Holcomb, said the measure institutes a process to tackle a backlog of hundreds of rape kits discovered in recent investigations. Scot Holcomb / YouTube

A Georgia Republican state senator is blocking a measure intended to speed up the handling of sexual crime evidence, accusing the bill’s Democratic sponsor of playing politics.

The bill, HB 827, requires hospitals and clinics to turn over physical evidence of a sexual crime—commonly called a rape kit—within 96 hours and for law enforcement agencies to deliver the evidence to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation within 30 days.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta), said the measure institutes a process to tackle a backlog of hundreds of rape kits discovered in recent investigations.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year about how the state’s largest hospital withheld more than 130 rape kits from police and failed to tell authorities about as many as 1,500 alleged sex crimes. CBS46 reported that the Athens-Clarke County and Cobb County police departments had stockpiled more than 500 rape kits, some dating back to the 1970s.

But state Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), chair of the state’s Senate Health and Human Services Committee, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she won’t allow the legislation, which won unanimous approval in the state’s GOP-controlled house, to advance to the state senate floor for a vote.

Unterman contends the problem of untested rape kits is limited to just a few counties.

“If there was a problem, I would be Johnny on the spot and I would have written the legislation,” Unterman told WSB-TV. “I think [Holcomb] really overly politicized it in an election year and I’ve got a problem with that.”

Representatives from the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, two hospital groups, the Prosecuting Attorneys Council, and victim advocates have spoken in support of the bill.

Georgia, according to reports, lacks an official statewide inventory of untested or backlogged rape kits. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in 2015 awarded nearly $2 million to the Georgia State Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to test more than 3,100 rape kits.

Nationwide, the advocacy group Rape Kit Action Project has put the number of untested rape kits at 100,000. Recent investigations suggest the problem is more mammoth.

Last year, a nationwide investigation of more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies uncovered about 70,000 untested kits, but noted the numbers likely represent a fraction of the total number of untested rape kits. The true number of untested kits is thought to reach as high as the hundreds of thousands.

Some states, like Georgia, are pushing through legislative reforms, but the pace of change is uneven. About 20 states are now testing unexamined rape kits and have changed the rules for how the evidence should be handled, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Lawmakers in Texas, Colorado, Ohio, and Illinois have passed laws to require testing of old kits. A 2015 Maryland law requires authorities to conduct a complete inventory of the backlog and make a report to the state this month.

The federal government in 2015 awarded $79 million in grants to 43 jurisdictions in 27 states to address the massive backlog. The Obama administration has yet to implement the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act three years after its passage. The intent of the 2013 law is to help law enforcement agencies determine the number of untested rape kits in storage.