July 2016 • Volume 104 • Number 7 • Page 12
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Legislation aimed at reducing the backlog of untested rape kits
Two bills awaiting the governor's signature are designed to keep rape evidence moving through the system and improve the quality of sexual-assault investigations.
On the national level, there is an estimated backlog of 400,000 untested rape kits. These kits are used to obtain DNA and other evidence in cases of sexual assault. The kits often provide crucial evidence that can lead to the arrest and conviction of sexual predators.
Some of the untested kits in the national backlog date back to 1979, according to Test400K, a national non-profit created to raise awareness and "support innovation in rapid DNA analysis." See http://test400k.org/about-test400k/. In 2010, then-Governor Pat Quinn signed the Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act, which requires that law enforcement submit every newly collected rape kit for testing within 10 days, with the analysis to be completed in six months.
By December of 2013, the Illinois State Police had processed 4,000 untested kits. This testing led to 927 matches in the national DNA database. See http://endthebacklog.org/illinois-0.
Nonetheless, Illinois is struggling to keep up. New legislation may help ameliorate the situation.
At a national forum in April, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez told a panel that Illinois prosecutors are currently waiting about a year to obtain testing results from the Illinois State Police Crime Lab. See http://chicago.suntimes.com/news/state-crime-lab-takes-a-year-to-test-rape-kits-alvarez-says/. Arlene Hall, commander of the state police crime lab, told the Chicago Sun-Times that, by the end of March 2016, the crime lab had a backlog of 2,179 criminal sexual assault cases where testing had been pending for over a month.
Two bills have passed both houses of the General Assembly. Proponents hope that, if signed by the governor, they will increase accountability and reporting. That, they hope, will in turn reduce backlogs while improving how law enforcement agents investigate sexual assault and abuse.
Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act amendments
SB 2221 would amend the Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act. The proposed amendment would improve notification and accountability in the testing process.
For example, when a rape kit matches a DNA profile obtained from a suspect, or matches a profile contained in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database, the investigating law enforcement agency must be notified in writing, with an automatic courtesy copy to be sent to the local state's attorney's office. The bill would also require law enforcement agencies to provide the state's attorney's office with an annual inventory of all open sexual assault cases.
Finally, beginning on January 1, 2017, the Department of State Police would be required to publish a quarterly report on its website providing a breakdown of the number of sexual assault case submissions from each law enforcement agency. This improved reporting should increase accountability across law enforcement agencies, while also keeping state's attorneys aware of cases where DNA evidence has been obtained.
Sexual Assault Incident Procedure Act
SB 3096 would create the Sexual Assault Incident Procedure Act. The Act would require every law enforcement agency to develop, adopt, and implement written policies regarding incidents of sexual assault or abuse. This task is to be completed by January 1, 2018.
The Office of the Attorney General, the Illinois Law Enforcement Training Standards Board, and the Department of State Police would be tasked with developing a model policy. This policy must take an evidence-based, trauma-informed, and victim-centered approach to responding to and investigating sexual assault and abuse.
The bill defines this approach as one that is designed to minimize the impact on victims, in particular by ensuring the "compassionate and sensitive delivery of services in a nonjudgmental manner." The guidelines will be comprehensive, addressing the investigation process from start to finish.
They will also include provisions for addressing victims' rights and notifying victims when a match is made. The Act would also require that law enforcement officers receive training to assist them in providing these services.
Law enforcement officers would also be required to make a written report in any situation where sexual assault is reported. The report must include all relevant facts, including whether a rape kit was completed.
Officers would also be required to provide victims with a form that advises them that they will not be charged for hospital emergency and medical forensic services. This provision may lead to more victims seeking medical care, which can help improve outcomes, in particular because the longer victims wait, it becomes less likely that evidence can be gathered.