Rape Kit Backlog Legislation Advances in West Virginia

Supermajority Education Fund

February 24, 2020

On Tuesday, West Virginia lawmakers passed a bill that would require rape kits to be submitted to the state police’s forensic lab within 30 days, and authorities to get a court order before they dispose of any examinations. The bill also provides for the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Commission, or SAFE Commission, to develop a system for tracking kits so that victims can access information on their status. The bill now heads to Governor Jim Justice’s (R) office to be signed into law.

State legislatures have been paying more attention to the issue of rape kit backlogs in recent years. The organization End The Backlog, a nonprofit dedicated to research and advocacy on responses to sexual violence, estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits across this country. This backlog, the organization states, is due to kits remaining in police evidence indefinitely without being sent for DNA analysis, and to crime laboratory facilities failing to perform DNA analysis on kits they do receive.

In the past two years, more than 20 states have passed laws requiring audits or other requirements around the testing of rape kits, according to End The Backlog. Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, and New York have enacted laws that require law enforcement to submit rape kits within specific time frames. Arizona, Texas, Washington, Ohio, and Idaho have passed legislation that creates tracking systems so that survivors can understand what is happening to their kit.

In West Virginia, the testing of rape kits became a state priority after the public and lawmakers discovered that 2,400 untested kits dating back to the 1980s were being stored in law enforcement agency offices and hospitals. This revelation was the result of grants awarded by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to 20 statesincluding West Virginia, to eliminate backlogs. The initiative to test these kits began in 2015, according to the Associated Press. 

Nancy Hoffman, state coordinator for the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services, an organization that partnered with the SAFE Commission to advocate for this bill, told Supermajority News that merely testing the unsubmitted kits now “doesn’t solve any problems.” To create systemic change, she said, “We need to prevent [kits] from collecting in the future. And the bottom line is each of those kits represents a victim, and each of those victims deserves to have their kits tested.” 

The 30-day deadline included in the bill is the most realistic requirement that they could push for, Hoffman added, since it takes time for law enforcement officials to prepare paperwork for the kits and to get them to regional hospitals in rural areas — hospitals that may need to connect with law enforcement in other counties.

Hoffman said that since the passage of the bill was a bipartisan effort, her organization has “no reason to believe” the governor won’t sign the legislation, which advocates have requested to happen next week.