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Bipartisan progress made to address ‘rape kit’ backlog, protect future victims

Bert Johnson

Bert Johnson

By Sen. Bert Johnson

Much attention has been given to the Legislature’s failure to pass a road funding plan before adjourning for the summer, but without much fanfare, very important bipartisan progress has been made to address one of the most tragic public policy issues facing our state and nation.

On June 3, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed my bill, Senate Bill 901, and House Bill 5445, introduced by Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia. Along with Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, I have been working with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, the Michigan State Police, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, and various victims’ rights groups to find a solution to the systemic problem of how our state handles sexual assault cases.

In 2009, a tour of a Detroit Police Department storage facility revealed over 11,300 untested rape kits dating back to the 1980s. To be sure, this is not only a Detroit issue nor a Michigan issue —nationwide, the backlog is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Each one of these untested kits represents a case of justice delayed.

The DNA evidence in each one can identify suspects, confirm the presence of an individual, affirm allegations, and even exonerate innocent suspects. Without the proper information, however, these opportunities are lost. We must act.

My bill will ensure evidence collection kits in sexual assault cases are handled properly and processed in a timely manner. It institutes specific timeframes for the evidence kits to travel from its origin — typically a health facility — to law enforcement agencies and to the laboratory for analysis.

A law enforcement agency would be required to obtain the rape kit from a healthcare facility within 14 days of receiving notice. There is also a strong victim’s rights component included, barring certain sensitive information from being released without the express consent of the victim.

I recently hosted a four-stop State of the Community Tour throughout my Senate district, with events serving Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and the Grosse Pointe communities. In Highland Park, I was joined by Prosecutor Worthy — she graciously sent assistant prosecutors to the other locations — and she impressed upon the audience the importance of ensuring rape kits are not lost in the system.

Submitting to a test is an incredibly invasive procedure that can be painful — emotionally and physically. Understanding that, and that such a small percentage of sexual assaults are reported, I believe those who have stepped forward to report the crime against them deserve to rest assured the case is being handled and justice is being pursued. Statistics show for every rape that is reported, seven others go unreported, greatly amplifying the need to get DNA evidence recorded. Prosecutor Worthy estimates there are over 100 serial rapists out and about in Wayne County alone.

Additional legislation awaiting committee approval is my Senate Bill 1004, called the Michigan Sexual Assault Victims Access to Justice Act. This bill would establish basic rights for sexual assault victims in order to keep them up-to-date and informed regarding the status of the investigation related to their attack. Within 24 hours of contact with a law enforcement agency, a victim is entitled to information on support programs and that a sexual assault evidence kit may be administered at no additional charge.

Victims will also be able to obtain contact information for an officer assigned to their case and ask to know whether their case has been submitted to the prosecutor’s office, the progress of the investigation, and, if it has been closed, the reason for its closure.

Finally, related to forensic testing, a victim will have access to information on whether DNA was successfully obtained from a rape kit, timeframes for completion of the necessary steps in the analysis, and whether or not the DNA was matched to an open case or file, as long as the information does not impede or compromise an ongoing investigation.

I’m happy to report a majority of Michigan senators co-sponsored my bill. House Bill 5445 passed unanimously and was signed into law on June 16. Very rarely does Michigan have the opportunity to be a trailblazer in the field of human rights and this is a great first step.

We will continue working throughout the fall to make progress on this issue, including the allocation of funds for rape kit testing.

State Sen. Bert Johnson represents District 2: Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and all five Grosse Pointe communities.

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