The Missouri Legislature this session passed three provisions aimed at addressing the thousands of untested rape kits in the state.
Those kits include DNA samples and other evidence collected in medical examinations conducted after sex crimes. The Attorney General’s Office has learned of more than 5,000 forensic evidence kits that have gone untested in Missouri. The exact number remains unclear as not all agencies in the state responded to that office’s inquiries.
Public Policy Director with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Jennifer Carter Dochler, said for a kit to be sitting on a shelf when a victim wants it to be tested is, “incredibly traumatizing.”
The Attorney General’s report suggested among other things that the state secure funding for testing kits; create a statewide tracking system for kits; and create standards for the handling of kits. Those recommendations were addressed by the legislature in its session that ended in May.
House Bill 1355 includes language that requires the Attorney General’s Office to create a statewide tracking system for forensic evidence from sexual assaults.
That provision was originally sponsored by Representative Donna Lichtenegger (R-Cape Girardeau), who hopes it will send a message to victims in Missouri.
The budget approved by the legislature also gives the Attorney General’s Office authority to apply for a federal grant to fund a statewide tracking system. The office should learn in September whether it will receive that grant money.
HB 1355 also requires that hospitals and other medical providers should notify law enforcement when they have a forensic evidence kit; that law enforcement shall take possession of a kit within 14 days of that notification; law enforcement shall take it to a laboratory for testing within 14 days of taking possession of it; and that law enforcement will hold on to a kit for 30 years if the related crime has not been prosecuted.
Carter Dochler says this will bring statewide continuity to how evidence kits are treated.
“We have so many inconsistent practices in the state: inconsistent practices regarding how soon law enforcement picks up the kit; whether or not the kits are submitted for analysis; definitions we’re using,” said Carter Dochler. “This should help create much more consistent terminology and practices across the state.”
Carter Dochler said it is hoped that with these provisions becoming law, more sex crimes in Missouri will be prosecuted.
“Especially when we’re talking about serial offenders and being able to show a pattern, having multiple kits and the same DNA among those kits is going to be a very important tool for prosecution,” said Carter Dochler.
She said some issues that still must be addressed concern how a kit will be handled when the victims in the associated case has not made a decision whether to report the crime to law enforcement. She said many of these “unreported” kits remain in hospitals.
“What we’d like to see is consistent practice across the state regarding unreported kits,” said Carter Dochler. “There should be a centralized place to store unreported kits across the state. We should also have a consistent practice of how long are they kept before they’re destroyed.”
She said some of those issues could be addressed in departmental rules and regulations, and might not require future legislative action. HB 1355 does define “reported” and “unreported” kits, and she said those definitions are a first step toward consistency.
Even with such areas still requiring attention, Carter Dochler said from the Coalition’s point of view, the 2018 legislative session saw the passage of many important laws.