Legislature(2017 - 2018)GRUENBERG 120
01/31/2017 03:00 PM STATE AFFAIRS
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HB 31-SEXUAL ASSAULT EXAMINATION KITS 3:51:33 PM CHAIR KREISS-TOMKINS announced that the final order of business would be HOUSE BILL NO. 31, "An Act requiring the Department of Public Safety to develop a tracking system and collection and processing protocol for sexual assault examination kits; requiring law enforcement agencies to send sexual assault examination kits for testing within 18 months after collection; requiring an inventory and reports on untested sexual assault examination kits; and providing for an effective date." 3:52:11 PM REPRESENTATIVE GERAN TARR, Alaska State Legislature, presented HB 31, as prime sponsor. She testified that just a few weeks ago, serial rapist Clifford Lee was sentenced to 90 years for four rapes and one attempted rape, occurring in 2014. She said Mr. Lee had a long history of systematically targeting and raping disadvantaged women. She added that the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing of a rape kit tied Mr. Lee to additional unsolved rapes occurring in 2001 and 2005. She stated that for 16 years Mr. Lee, a dangerous criminal, had been in "our community" possibly harming other victims. She referred committee members to an article about Mr. Lee in the bill packet. MS. TARR pointed out, "This is just the most recent story that brutally reminds us of Alaska's epidemic of sexual assault. It reminds us of our responsibility to victims to diligently collect and process evidence to bring violators to justice and remove perpetrators from our communities." She stated that Alaska currently has a backlog of 3,600 untested rape kits. She claimed it is an enormous disrespect to the victims who have endured the trauma of sexual assault and have taken the effort to be tested, only to have the evidence be disregarded. She offered that she respects the right of victims to choose not to press charges to avoid additional trauma, but claimed that the intent of HB 31 is to give victims the right to press charges and have the DNA from the rape kits entered into a [tracking system] database to use for solving other crimes. She declared that Alaska communities remain at risk if rapists, who could have been identified by the DNA evidence, escape justice. MS. TARR stated that Alaska consistently ranks among the highest in the nation for rates of rape and sexual assault. She offered, "We must do everything we can to turn around this epidemic." She said that in 2015, she was proud to sponsor House Bill 117, regarding Alaska's backlog of sexual assault examination kits. She stated she applauds Governor Bill Walker and his staff who, at that time, "took on this issue" and successfully procured a $1.1 million federal Department of Justice (DOJ) grant to inventory and process the backlogged kits. She offered that HB 31 would establish a new system to avoid a backlog, as currently exists. She said that the proposed legislation would establish a uniform protocol for processing rape kits, which will assist Alaska's 200-plus law enforcement agencies to consistently collect and process the sensitive evidence in a timely manner. She mentioned that the new system would require the rape kits be sent for testing no later than 18 months after the sexual assault examination. She added that HB 31 would require the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to report on the number of untested rape kits, in order to avoid a large backlog. She offered that the approach outlined in HB 31 is part of a national effort. It has been shown in states across the country that obtaining the DNA evidence catches dangerous criminals and makes communities safer. She concluded that in an effort to give victims justice, HB 31 should be passed. MS. TARR referred to a packet of letters in support of HB 31, which came from individual Alaskans across the state, the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (ANDVSA), and other women's organizations familiar with the impact of sexual assault and associated trauma. MS. TARR said that HB 31 would create a standard protocol for processing rape kits, and a database for tracking them. She referred to the fiscal note, which includes a link to a description of the sexual assault kit tracking and inventory management system. The fiscal note shows a cost of about $100,000 for the tracking system. She added that additional staff would be needed to meet the requirements of HB 31. She stressed, "Even in lean budget times, these are dollars very well spent." She conceded that many sexual assaults are committed by an individual the victim knows, but as in the case of Mr. Lee, women were attacked and brutalized in the traumatic rape by a stranger. She noted how difficult it must be for an individual to overcome such an event. She said, "People's lives often fall apart and people commit suicide - they end their life from that kind of trauma." She admitted that $260,000 is difficult to consider in the current budget crises but offered, "If we can save any one victim, I think, its dollars well spent." 3:57:35 PM REPRESENTATIVE BIRCH asked why there is such a large backlog and how old the [unprocessed] rape kits are. REPRESENTATIVE TARR offered two reasons for the backlog. She said rape kits are sent out to law enforcement organizations but are not tracked; therefore, it is difficult to know if they have been "lost along the way." She said that another reason rape kits have not been tested is that many sexual assault cases involve a known perpetrator. She went on to say that even though the DNA evidence may not be relevant in these cases, the perpetrator may have been involved in other crimes. She offered that including the DNA evidence in the database could link the perpetrator to another crime. REPRESENTATIVE TARR stated that some of the untested kits "go back years." She conceded that an individual might request that the kit not be tested. She noted the suffering some victims experience after such a traumatic event and said that some just choose to "move on." She said that facing the set of events involved with pressing charges - the multi-year court case, follow-up testing, testifying in court - might seem insurmountable for some victims. She concluded that with the passage of HB 31, "we can protect that victim and give them the space and path forward, while also using the DNA evidence for its intended purpose." REPRESENTATIVE BIRCH expressed his support for HB 31 and mentioned his constituent, Bonnie Craig, involved in a case that was "cold" for years, which was ultimately solved through the DNA of someone "half a continent away." He expressed his hope that the backlog was not continuing to accrue, and welcomed comments from DPS on that matter. REPRESENTATIVE TARR responded that the current backlog [for unprocessed rape kits in Alaska] is 3,600. She went on to say such a backlog is not uncommon among states and a national effort emerged to respond to the issue. She started working on this issue in 2015, after receiving information from a national organization, called End the Backlog. She said that at the time, Alaska did not have good information on the number of backlogged rape kits. She said that at the same time, DOJ recognized this issue as a critical public safety need and developed a grant program to help states process their backlogs. She said the first step in applying for funding was completing an audit to define the extent of the backlog problem and, thus, the need for grant funds. She relayed that a bill was initiated; Governor Walker carried the initiative forward and worked with law enforcement agencies to complete the audit; and DPS was able to submit the grant application and receive the $1.1 million grant. She said the grant should help DPS get through the existing backlog of 3,600 rape kits, and HB 31 would set time parameters for the ongoing processing of rape kits. 4:03:13 PM CAPTAIN DAN LOWDEN, Deputy Commander, Division of Alaska State Troopers (AST), Department of Public Safety (DPS), reiterated the various reasons for the backlog of rape kits: victims choose not to press charges; the perpetrator is known; and cases are "pled out" before kits are tested. He offered his belief that no rape kits went untested due to disinterest. He said when the rape kits were administered, they were often thought of as for an individual case. He offered that with cases such as the one Representative Tarr cited, DPS is realizing there are serial perpetrators who are missed if kits go untested. He said DPS supports HB 31. He stated, "We believe that by testing more kits, we will catch more people." REPRESENTATIVE BIRCH asked about opposition to HB 31. He also asked if for cases involving known perpetrators, rape kit testing is considered unnecessary. CAPTAIN LOWDEN answered that there are rules for how long rape kits are retained. He said he suspects that cost may have been a factor in cases, for example, when the perpetrator was convicted before the rape kit was processed. He opined that the thought processes [for processing rape kits] have now changed in recognition that the information could help in other cases. 4:07:00 PM REPRESENTATIVE KNOPP referred to a phrase in HB 31, on page 2, line 1, which read: "18 months after collection." He asked, "Why 18 months ...?" He also asked if there is a timeframe for getting the results of the test back. REPRESENTATIVE TARR responded that after consulting with prosecutors, she chose a timeframe that would fit within the timeframe needed to gather enough evidence to bring a case to trial. She would support a shorter timeframe, but offered that this timeframe fits the fiscal note appropriation. She added that HB 31 calls for hiring a fulltime staff person, which she suspects would allow DPS to process rape kits in house. She stated her understanding that currently some rape kits are processed in state, but kits processed with federal grant money would be sent out of state for processing. REPRESENTATIVE KNOPP said he is interested in the current schedule for processing rape kits. He said that processing 3,600 kits would take nine and a half years, at a process rate of one kit per day. He asked if DPS is processing a rape kit every day and if it has a 10-year backlog. REPRESENTATIVE TARR said that the federal grant funds will be critical to the effort of processing the backlog, and many more kits will be processed much faster than one per day. She pointed out that the effective date of HB 31 would be January 1, 2018, which would give DPS time to work through the backlog before that effective date. She expressed her hope that there would be a seamless transition from completing the work of processing the backlog to meeting the requirement of HB 31, if passed. REPRESENTATIVE KNOPP rephrased his question to ask what the 3,600 kit backlog represents in processing time, that is, the rate of processing kits. CHAIR KREISS-TOMKINS requested the representatives from DPS to provide that information. 4:12:02 PM REPRESENTATIVE WOOL referred to the letter from the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence, in the committee packet, which cites the processing of a backlog of 12,000 untested rape kits. It also mentioned a law requiring kits to be tested in 60 days, or for the person who did not want to press charges, put into a hold for three years. He asked if currently all rape kits in Alaska are tested in state or out of state. REPRESENTATIVE TARR replied a combination of both, and added that [place of testing] is determined by the complexities of the evidence collected and the specific analysis capabilities in the DPS laboratory versus more sophisticated analysis Outside. In response to Representative Knopp's question, she said, "If you've got the money to pay for it, there are scientists who can process this evidence." She said that once the capacity exists, the processing can be done faster. She offered that the backlog would be processed in a shorter time frame than that described by Representative Knopp. REPRESENTATIVE WOOL asked for the cost of processing a rape kit. REPRESENTATIVE TARR referred to page 2 of the fiscal note, which cites a cost of about $1,500 per kit. She stated that would be the standard cost. She reminded the committee that the cost of processing the backlog is not included in the fiscal note, since that would be covered by the federal grant. She offered that HB 31 would improve the training and overall processing of rape kits. 4:15:00 PM REPRESENTATIVE BIRCH asked if the high cost is due to legal issues, such as chain of custody. REPRESENTATIVE TARR answered yes, and referred to the fiscal note, page 2, third paragraph, which states the tracking system would cost about $96,000. REPRESENTATIVE WOOL pointed out that 3,000 backlog kits that cost $1,500 each to process amounts to considerable expense - $4.5 million - and reiterated that the fiscal note did not address that issue, which is a separate financing need. REPRESENTATIVE TARR agreed. 4:16:44 PM CHAIR KREISS-TOMKINS opened public testimony on HB 31. 4:16:57 PM CRYSTAL GODBY, Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), explained that the Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP) is a group of current and former sex workers, sex trafficking victims, and allies. She said CUSP is working to protect everyone in Alaska's sex industry. She paraphrased from the following written testimony [original punctuation provided]: We would like to extend out full support for this important House Bill. Perpetrators must know that they are going to suffer consequences for their heinous crimes because rape kits are no longer going to be hidden away as the lowest priorities. Alaska will never stop being the rape capital of the United States as long as we don't even have rape kits prioritized to process and then match results with state and national data bases to hold accountable those responsible in a timely manner. In 2014, Detroit identified 188 serial rapists by processing just 1,600 rape kits out of their much larger backlog. In December of 2016, Community United for Safety and Protection had Hays Research firm in Anchorage conduct a survey of 904 Alaskan voters' priorities. Processing Alaska's backlog of rape kits was a close second priority to investigating cases of murdered and missing sex workers, with 36% listing it as their first priority and 37% listing it as their second priority .... Clearly, Alaskans take this issue seriously and are in agreement with the passing of HB 31. 4:18:52 PM CARMEN LOWRY, Ph.D., Executive Director, Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (ANDVSA), stated that ANDVSA represents 18 member programs across the state, most of which provide shelter and emergency services to victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. She noted the six affiliate members, who are also part of the large ANDVSA network. She said that ANDVSA fully supports HB 31. She asserted that HB 31 raises the accountability of law enforcement, sexual assault response teams (SART), and taxpayers. DR. LOWRY cited three reasons for ANDVSA support of HB 31. She claimed that as SART members perform examinations and collect data and evidence for prosecution, there must be a system for tracking rape kits, to understand the backlog problem. She said the second reason is "efficiency"; how to become more efficient and where to focus resources. She stated the third reason is "effectiveness"; enactment of HB 31 would lead to better prosecution. She said her final point addressed balancing the state's need to track rape examination kits with victims' rights to choose whether or not to prosecute. She said HB 31 would promote respect for the process of gathering evidence, which is intensive, intimate, and invasive, and ensure that victims are respected. She said, "The message is when we do this kind of evidence gathering through a rape examination kit, something will come from it." REPRESENTATIVE BIRCH noted the challenges of smaller communities in regard to gathering evidence after an assault charge, and he asked about custody of the rape kit. DR. LOWRY said she didn't know but would provide that information to the committee. 4:26:07 PM KEELEY OLSON, Executive Director, Stand Together Against Rape (STAR), testified in support of HB 31 on behalf of STAR. She claimed that the proposed legislation represents the best standard practice recognized nationwide. She said that after an audit of the current backlog, it is critical to determine a consistent process for all law enforcement agencies across the state. She said that HB 31 would answer all the important questions raised by the committee members. She mentioned that there are many jurisdictions throughout the state that have an alternative reporting mechanism, called non-investigative reports. She said that in these cases, the victim undergoes a forensic examination, and the evidence is saved in case the victim chooses to proceed with a law enforcement investigation. She offered that these rape kits are collected by the examiner with an advocate present, but no law enforcement personnel is notified. She said a victim of sexual assault may come forward at any time to file an anonymous report and request to have his/her case opened up for full investigation. She stated the importance of not coercing victims to participate in the criminal legal process against their will. REPRESENTATIVE BIRCH asked if for some rape kits, victims may choose not to submit them to law enforcement, and the kits are put into a holding place. MS. OLSON responded yes. She said the reason for that is to provide options to victims who are hesitant to "come forward" or intimidated by the process but recognize the need for evidence to be collected in a timely manner to reserve the right to open those cases to investigation. She added alternative reporting has resulted in "some very successful prosecutions" as a result. She mentioned this mechanism is a provision of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) [of 1994]. CHAIR KREISS-TOMKINS said he will leave public testimony open on HB 31. [HB 31 was held over.]