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Saturday December 3rd

Attorney General Josh Stein calls for more funding to test backlogged rape kits

Police seals to protect evidence are shown in a rape kit during Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner training on Friday, February 16, 2018 at West Suburban hospital in Oak Park, Ill. Photo Courtesy of Kristan Lieb/Chicago Tribune/TNS.
Buy Photos Police seals to protect evidence are shown in a rape kit during Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner training on Friday, February 16, 2018 at West Suburban hospital in Oak Park, Ill. Photo Courtesy of Kristan Lieb/Chicago Tribune/TNS.

North Carolina has the highest number of untested rape kits of any state, but a recent call from N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein for funding to test the kits might change that. 

Stein proposed the Survivor Act on Jan. 29, which is a call for the General Assembly to allocate $6 million to test backlogged rape kits. The Survivor Act also orders that all submitted rape kits be tested within 45 days of collection to prevent future backlogs. 

“Each one of these kits represents a tragedy in someone’s life,” Stein said in a statement to The Daily Tar Heel. “Each victim deserves to have law enforcement to do our best to solve their case.”

North Carolina has roughly 15,160 untested rape kits, according to the state crime laboratory.

In 2014, The Accountability Project, an initiative by End The Backlog, uncovered over 1,000 untested rape kits in Charlotte. 

The Durham Police Department was also found to have 2,686 untested rape kits as of the following year. The agency was unaware of the number of untested kits at the time, according to End The Backlog.

“What we have found through communities that have taken a lot of the old untested kits off the shelves and tested them is that serial offenders have been left free to remain on the streets and commit crimes over and over again,” said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for The Joyful Heart Foundation, the organization that started End the Backlog. “This is because the evidence that could have stopped them was sitting in a box on a shelf.” 

Rape kits can go untested for a number of reasons, including a lack of protocol and training. 

“An overarching issue is that the criminal justice system does not take sexual assault seriously,” said Knecht. “This plays into not funding crime labs enough to test every rape kit and not training law enforcement well enough to have them understand that when a victim comes to them, they are in trauma.”

Public crime labs also receive hundreds or thousands of DNA samples from crime scenes each year. As a result, it can take years before labs are able to start testing DNA evidence kits, including rape kits. 

If passed, the Survivor Act will counteract these long turnaround times by allocating $800,000 to hire additional forensic scientists to test the kits.  

“There are approximately 15,000 kits that need to be tested, and they cost roughly $700 each,” said Laura Brewer, the communications director for Stein. “So more funding is needed.”

Last October, Stein received a $2 million federal grant to outsource around 3,000 rape kits. However, the grant will only provide $1 million to test kits, Brewer said. 

“This legislation, along with the $4 million grant funding my office has secured, will allow us to move forward on testing some of the more than 15,000 sexual assault kits currently in local law enforcement custody,” said Stein in a press release.

With the state attorney general strongly behind this legislation, it is more likely to get passed, Knecht said.

“It is backed up with money, and money tends to be the largest issue,” she said. “Putting the money upfront is a really big piece of making sure it will be successful.” 

The issue is also bipartisan, which makes this legislation more agreeable and less likely to receive pushback, Knecht said. But despite the Attorney General’s efforts to pass the act, its fate will ultimately be up to the legislature. 

“We need to send a clear message to all survivors: the state of North Carolina cares greatly what happened to you, and we’re going to do everything in our power to help you see justice,” said Stein. “We also need to send a clear message to any would be criminals: No matter how long ago your crime occurred, we are coming for you.”

@diane_adame 

city@dailytarheel.com

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