Maryland legislators, buoyed by a national campaign and the commitment of federal resources, are considering legislation to eventually clear the backlog of sexual assault forensic kits, or rape kits, in the state.
The number of rape kits—collections of physical evidence taken from victims of sexual assaults—sitting untested in Maryland police departments and crime labs is unknown. Maryland, like most states, does not require that law enforcement agencies track the number of kits coming into the system.
The bills would mandate a statewide audit of all kits, which proponents say is the first step towards getting justice for survivors of assault.
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The Rape Kit Action Project estimates that 400,000 kits remain backlogged in public crime labs or in law enforcement storage across the country. Each kit would costs $1,000 to test, on average.
“Thousands of women right now are looking over their shoulder. Thousands of them wonder, ‘Will he come back?’” Vice President Joe Biden said during a recent stop in Baltimore County to commit federal support toward backlog clearance. “We should make the money available. We can restore women’s lives.”
State law requires law enforcement to collect DNA evidence from anyone convicted of a felony, as well as certain non-felony charges. Advocates say this evidence could be useful in identifying perpetrators of sexual assaults, since DNA from rape kits could be matched with already collected evidence.
Rape kits are only useful if they are processed and tested, and they often aren’t. In Maryland, the backlog gained attention in 2014 after the Baltimore Sun reported on a local man identified as a serial rapist after a rape kit from 2012 was finally processed.
Baltimore police have since then worked to decrease the backlog, which at one point reached 1,500 kits.
SB 498 and HB 462, which have both been passed by their chamber of origin and are awaiting passage in the other, would require a complete inventory of all untested kits statewide by January 2016. Following that audit, a report detailing the extent of the backlog would be given to the state attorney general, who would then offer recommendations by the end of the year for addressing the backlog.
Galvanized by efforts across the country, led nationally by the Joyful Heart Foundation’s End the Backlog project, federal and states governments have been coming up with the money. Last November, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office pledged to commit $35 million to clear backlogs nationwide.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance in March started accepting grant applications, supported by first-of-its-kind federal investments, from state and local law enforcement agencies to address untested kits.
Maryland lawmakers are also considering another bill, HB 382, related to rape kits. That bill, which passed the house in March and is being considered by the senate, would guarantee survivors of sexual assault have the right to receive information about the results of their rape kits.