Current legislation does not address S.C.’s rape kit backlog

Current legislation does not address S.C.’s rape kit backlog
Source: WMBF News

COLUMBIA, SC (WMBF) - Almost half of the United States has passed laws that require sexual assault kits to be tested. South Carolina is not one of them.

For many advocates of sexual assault survivors, a statewide tracking system and inventory of backlogged rape kits is necessary to know how many rapists are roaming free.

“If you don’t know how many you have and you have no way to find out, that’s pretty scary,” said Ilse Knect, the director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation.

The Joyful Heart Foundation is one of the groups fighting for survivors’ rights and made eliminating the rape kit backlog a priority in 2010.

The foundation has six pillars of reform it says are essential for states in eliminating the backlog, including annual inventories, testing all untested and new rape kits, keeping victims informed, and funding and tracking rape kits.

Currently, South Carolina has yet to pass any of the pillars.

The group’s efforts have uncovered more than 155,000 untested kits across the United States and helped worked on legislative efforts in 32 states.

In 23 states, lawmakers have implemented a tracking system.

While South Carolina has yet to pass any type of legislation addressing the rape kit backlog, there is a bill making its way through the State House.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, would require the State Law Enforcement Division to create and operate a tracking system for rape kits across the state.

“I filed that legislation trying to give comfort to victims of sexual assault who are concerned about the status of their rape kit,” said Cobb-Hunter.

It passed in the House on the last day of the session is early May, but it will need to wait at least eight months before the Senate can vote on the bill.

This is not the first time a sexual assault tracking bill has been proposed in the State House.

Cobb-Hunter also proposed a bill last year that would create a statewide tracking system.

Representatives Mandy Powers Norrell and James Smith also filed a bill to create a tracking system and to have SLED issue a quarterly report.

Neither bill was ever voted on.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, a tracking system has been in place since October. It allows victims, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to know the status and location of a survivor’s rape kit.

“You can track your pizza delivery. You can know exactly where your pizza is. You know where your Uber is. You know where your packages are through UPS. Certainly the criminal justice system can know where these kits are,” said North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, an advocate for decreasing the backlog.

It’s technology the state of Idaho gave North Carolina for free.

SLED officials said it’s aware of Idaho’s system and is continuing to look at other software providers and how states have implemented the systems.

“We want to try to project what the need would be for South Carolina so that we can best put ourselves in a position to have those resources available,” said Maj. Todd Hughey, SLED’s lab director.

Hughey also said SLED looked into a tracking system in 2016 and found out the starting cost was $250,000.

Since implementing a tracking system last year, Stein and other North Carolina lawmakers introduced the Survivor Act, which sets requirements for future and backlogged rape kits. Part of those requirements include time limits on following up on DNA matches in the national criminal database and for sending the kit to a lab.

Part of the bill sets aside $6 million for rape kit testing and another recurring $800,000 to hire more forensic scientists at the state’s crime lab.

Stein said the investment is worth the payoff because the state is getting an average of one DNA hit for every 10 kits tested.

“So, we're able to solve a crime, and a violent crime, for $7,000. That is a bargain for public safety because the cost to the community, to the person's psyche for experiencing the sexual assault, is a heck of a lot more than $7,000,” Stein said.

Without the same investment or any solution from lawmakers in Columbia to address this issue, it’s a problem that won’t go away.

“I think something needs to be done with the backlog. I think fundamentally what you have to recognize is that you can’t manage a problem unless you measure the problem,” said S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.

Without knowing how many kits remain untested, the state can’t appropriately assign resources.

For some, a lack of action from lawmakers creates a different problem.

“The laws that we have in place do not show that we value sexual assault victims or stopping sexual assault in South Carolina and I don’t think it’s because we don't think it’s important, but I think it’s because in mass the legislature has just not thought a lot about it,” said Powers Norrell.

This year, Powers Norrell filed six bills related to sexual assault, of which none passed.

“I look at the state of our laws and I look at sexual assault and say why in the world do we not have a bill defining consent? Why don't we have a law that gives sexual assault victims rights that the sexual assault bill of rights would? Some very basic things,” Powers Norrell said.

South Carolina lawmakers took immediate action in April after University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson was brutally murdered after getting into a car she thought was her Uber ride.

Legislation to make ride sharing services safer passed just six weeks after it was introduced, proving time is not an issue for passing sexual assault bills.

“Everything is a matter of urgency and you know in South Carolina as in anywhere and especially in a lawmaking body, we respond to immediate threats a whole lot better than long-term threats. I would hate for there to have to be another tragedy in order for lawmakers to respond to some of these bills,” Powers Norrell said.

The representative also points to the gender gap in the General Assembly as one contributor to the lack of action on these bills.

Less than 20% of state representatives are females and fewer than 9% are senators.

Another major hurdle is the cost. Testing a single kit costs an average of $1,000.

With at least 1,700 untested kits in South Carolina, that means more work at SLED, which is already responsible for processing evidence on other crimes for around 300 agencies.

But all the money doesn’t have to come from the state’s general fund.

In Washington, Congress has approved more than $40 million since 2014 for a sexual assault kit grant that helps local communities eliminate the backlog.

Stein said North Carolina was awarded around $3 million in grant money to begin outsourcing its untested kits to private labs.

For many, it comes down to making testing rape kits a priority.

In an already tight budget, with teachers fighting for better pay and South Carolinians pushing lawmakers to do something about the roads, the cost of testing these kits isn’t at the top of the list for many lawmakers.

“You got a finite amount of money and an infinite amount of problems to address and you know every problem that we have is important, but you know each year they have to make tough decisions,” Wilson said. “I mean there’s just billions of billions of dollars out there and things we’ve got to address, from infrastructure to pensions to education.”

However, Powers Norrell said she doesn’t think the backlog can get fixed without a bill getting passed.

“We’re not going to have the widespread support of law enforcement until we are able to tie it to funding. Funding requires the legislator to get deeply involved,” she explained.

But for those the broken system impacts, no dollar amount is too high.

“How many future victims can we save and how many current victims could get justice and how much money could we save?” said Nicole Service, the volunteer coordinator for the Myrtle Beach Rape Crisis Center. “I mean, there was really no downside to doing it.”

This is part five of WMBF’s multi-part “Untested: The Rape Kit Crisis in the Carolinas.” Click here to go to the series’ official homepage.

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