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Timely Rape Kit Testing Required Under New Mississippi Law, But Backlog Remains

Rape survivors “expect their kit will be tested, and we owe it to them to do that and to do it in a timely manner,” Joyful Heart Foundation Policy & Advocacy Director Ilse Knecht said on April 20, 2023, in reaction to Gov. Tate Reeves signing House Bill 485 into law. The Bill creates a template and timeline for processing DNA evidence from rape victims. Photo courtesy Ilse Knecht

Future rape victims in Mississippi can have more confidence that the State will process their rape test kits in a timely manner after Gov. Tate Reeves signed House Bill 485 into law on April 17, but much work remains to be done, Ilse Knecht told the Mississippi Free Press.

She runs Joyful Heart Foundation’s End the Backlog program, which focuses on rape-kit testing across the country. Mississippi became a target for expanding the New York-based organization’s initiative during the 2023 Legislative session.

The new law requires timely testing of future rape kits and grants victims access to information on their cases. With those changes, the State ticked two of the organization’s six pillars for ending rape kit backlogs. The remaining pillars include creating a statewide inventory, clearing untested rape kit backlogs, funding reform and implementing a rape-kit tracking system. Before the passage of the Legislation, Mississippi and Maine were the only states with no progress on any of the six pillars.

The organization initially wanted the legislation to cover a third pillar by creating a statewide inventory of the rape kit backlog.

“We originally wanted the inventory, but you know, really what happened was everybody sort of said, we’ve got to take it a couple of steps at a time,” Knecht told the Mississippi Free Press on April 20. “The next step we really would like to see is an inventory of untested rape kits to make sure that we understand what is on the shelf now in Mississippi—what is sitting in law enforcement agencies and hospitals across the state.”

“Because the problem really is there are too many times when the decision is made not to test a rape kit, and then the rape kit sits in the hospital, maybe police might not ever pick it up from the hospital,” she added. “It might also sit in the law enforcement storage where they just keep it there, or it might be destroyed, frankly. So we need to get a real good count related to how many kits are sitting and then mandate the testing of those kits.”

One Mississippi hospital has 50 untested rape kits, with about 15 related to child rape, Mississippi Center for Violence Prevention Executive Director Sandy Middleton recalled a law enforcement officer telling her earlier in the year. “And some of them have been there for a year and a half,” she said at a Feb. 21 press briefing at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson. The organization partnered with Joyful Heart Foundation to push for H.B. 485’s passage.

Rape Kit Backlogs Stretch Back Decades

In 2019, the Jackson Police Department said it had more than 600 sexual abuse and rape kits without DNA evaluation, some a decade old.

Under the federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative program, the City of Jackson received a $1 million grant to process those kits. The estimated number of untested kits has since risen to more than 800 after the latest count, SAKI Site Coordinator Jacquelyn Gardner told the Mississippi Free Press on Tuesday. She said the City has purchased a tracking system with the grant and is identifying kits to provide to a yet-to-be-named vendor before uploading to the federal Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

Jackson’s rape kit backlog includes decades of hundreds of untested materials. Jacquelyn Gardner said H.B. 485 could help in the apprehension of serial offenders. Photo courtesy City of Jackson

She said that a sexual assault kit team, including the district attorney’s office, will determine which kits “we want to go ahead and send first.”

Gardner suggested an individual kit may cost $1,300 to process, and some cases go as far back as 1994 and up to October 2020.

She said H.B. 485’s passage is “a good thing” because it provides a way to catch serial offenders.

“If you’ve got a serial offender where somebody decides not to press charges—they reported the rape, they have a rape kit taken, but they decide that they don’t want to move forward with it—if somebody has a rape kit done and it’s in CODIS, then you know that person can still be apprehended, that person can still be charged,” Gardner said. “You can still determine that that’s a serial offender because their DNA is in a national system.”

Rise, a sexual assault survivor nonprofit that advocated for the bill, shared a statement with the Mississippi Free Press recognizing the efforts of the legislation’s sponsors, including Reps. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia; Dana McLean, R- Columbus; Jill Ford, R-Madison; and Otis Anthony, D-Indianola.

“The measure provides rights to sexual assault survivors such as: statewide forensic evidence retention for at least 20 years, timely analysis of forensic evidence, the right to be notified if there is a DNA match, the right to be notified of the rights afforded survivors, and the establishment of a Sexual Assault Evidence Accountability Task Force,” the organization said in the statement. “This is Rise’s 58th law for survivors and protects the civil rights of more than 607,000 survivors in Mississippi.”

Federal best practices recommend a recurring annual inventory and publication of the results online, Joyful Heart Foundation says on its website.

“A thorough count of untested rape kits currently in the possession of medical facilities, law enforcement agencies, rape crisis centers, and crime laboratories can uncover the current number of untested kits; provide a full picture of rape kit handling and testing procedures across the state; and guide a state legislature in appropriating and targeting resources to eliminate a backlog,” the organization’s site says. “By conducting an annual inventory (also commonly referred to as an ‘audit’) of untested rape kits, states can strengthen accountability, monitor progress toward eliminating the backlog, and send a message to survivors that they matter.”

“While this pillar can be best accomplished through legislative action, it can also be satisfied through executive direction, state auditor mandates, or as part of a federal grant requirement.”

A Rape Kit Tracking System

The new Mississippi law creates the new 12-member Sexual Assault Evidence Accountability Task Force to develop and approve standardized policies and procedures concerning the sexual assault evidence collection kit.

H.B. 485 also requires the task force, the Mississippi Forensics Laboratory and the Mississippi Department of Public Safety to conduct a study examining the resources required to implement a rape kit tracking system and to issue a report by July 1, 2024.

Gov. Tate Reeves Tate Reeves signed House Bill 485 into law on April 17, 2023, taking limited steps toward addressing the State’s poor record on rape kit testing. File photo/Tate Reeves Twitter

Ilse Knecht compared the rape kit tracking system to tracking “your package on Amazon.”

“That’s great for survivors,” she told the Mississippi Free Press. “But it’s also really good for the criminal justice system because the evidence doesn’t get lost in the process, and it doesn’t sit anywhere too long, so it does now follow the law, which is going to mandate testing moving forward.”

“There are several vendors who create these systems and what we’ve seen other states do, which makes sense, is to have a demonstration from those companies and see what fits them best. There are different vendors and different ways of putting this together.”

‘One of the Most Effective Uses of State Funds’

Addressing rape kit backlogs comes with cost-saving benefits and up to a 65,000% return on investment, researcher Paul J. Speaker wrote in 2019. “Processing every rape kit could be one of the most effective uses of state funds,” Speaker later explained in a post on End the Backlog website.

“Researchers have estimated that testing every rape kit could save states more than $400,000 per averted assault,” the researcher noted. “As more kits are tested, more ‘matches’ are made, and more serial offenders are identified.”

“If more serial offenders are identified and prosecuted, future crimes are averted, producing savings to both would-be victims and communities, who save money on crime investigations and prosecutions in averted crimes,” he added. “Additional research has shown that adding the DNA of just one offender to the DNA database provides savings to society that may be as high as $20,000 per submission.”

“Processing every rape kit could be one of the most effective uses of state funds,” West Virginia University Finance Department researcher Paul J. Speaker said in 2019. Photo courtesy WVU

Knecht pointed to Cleveland, Ohio, saying that after the City started testing unprocessed 4,000 kits, “they were getting a lot of leads on these old cases, and those leads were also connecting to other cases, and they were seeing that these criminals were serial offenders, not just rapists.”

“They were committing all kinds of crime across the board from, it could be burglary, robbery, a simple assault, domestic violence, carjacking to homicide,” she said. “And so they looked at, if you have somebody who’s committing 20 crimes in their lifetime, what if you stopped them early and all of the impact on society from those other crimes would be gone.”

The cost of crime on society includes things like medical bills, replacing locks on doors and lost work time, she said.

“Many survivors suffer from trauma and aren’t able to really maintain a job, often until they maybe go through a lot of therapy or they’ve healed in some way,” she added. “It costs society a lot of money for all these crimes to occur. So if you can stop them early, in Cleveland, they said you could save $9,000 per kit.”

‘They’ve Done Everything Society Asked’

“I’ve had so many survivors say after the sexual assault—which is the worst experience of their life, and it’s so physical and so invasive—that they want to take a shower, and many don’t because they want to go have evidence collected and that will destroy evidence,” Ilse Knecht told the Mississippi Free Press.

Rape survivors get themselves to a hospital and sometimes wait hours, she said.

“And then they have this very invasive and uncomfortable procedure with a stranger that can take four-to-six hours, and basically their body is treated like a crime scene because it is,” Knecht said. “They are photographed and swabbed, and in the best of circumstances with a trained examiner, it is a very difficult process. And they do that because that’s what society asks them to do, and also they believe that the person that did this to them is a violent person who might do it to somebody else and most survivors say to me, ‘It already happened to me, and I want justice, but what I also really want is not to hurt somebody else.’”

“They’ve done everything society asks them to do, and they expect that their kit will be tested, and we owe it to them to do that and to do it in a timely manner,” she continued. “So we’re very excited that this bill has been signed in Mississippi and that survivors moving forward will know that their kit, (after) they went through such a painstaking process, will be tested.”

Reps. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, Dana McLean, R- Columbus, Jill Ford, R-Madison, and Otis Anthony, D-Indianola, sponsored House Bill 485, which regulates the treatment of rape kits in Mississippi. Photos courtesy State of Mississippi

Since 2016 when the Joyful Heart Foundation adopted its six-pillar approach to ending rape kit backlogs, 46 states have passed 130 bills relating to those pillars, the organization said in a 2020 report.

“End the Backlog is an initiative that is focused entirely on making sure that we know across the United States how many untested rape kits are on law enforcement and hospital shelves, making sure that they get tested once they’re discovered, and making sure that states have mandatory testing of the new kits that are coming in and getting collected today (and)tracking systems for rape kits and victims rights. And that’s what we’re doing in all 50 states,” Knecht told the Mississippi Free Press. “Right now, 38 states and Washington D.C. have mandatory testing of rape kits and looking back about six years ago, was a fraction of that so the movement is really strong.”

“It’s very well established now that testing rape kits is the right thing to do, that it makes sense from a public policy perspective, and that it should be a victim’s right to have their rape kit tested and that they shouldn’t have to wait too long,” she added. “So in the last five or six years, we’ve been really successful in creating this sort of new schematic, for lack of a better word, to ensure that no matter where a survivor lives, their rape kit will be tested quickly. We still have more work to do, but it’s going very well.”

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