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California seeks justice for rape victims on the cheap

Criminalist Angel Shaw processes a rape kit at the Sacramento Count District Attorney’s crime analysis lab in 2013. There is a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits in California.
Criminalist Angel Shaw processes a rape kit at the Sacramento Count District Attorney’s crime analysis lab in 2013. There is a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits in California. rbyer@sacbee.com

Guess what these could soon have in common: Alzheimer’s disease, cancer research, fallen firefighters, arts in schools, sea otters and rape victims.

If legislators approve, testing rape kits could join the 20 causes that Californians can support by checking a donation box on their state tax returns.

Is this the best we can do? Does California have to rely on the generosity of taxpayers because state and local officials are unwilling to spend the money to make a real dent in the backlog of untested rape kits?

It’s embarrassing.

More than that, it’s a travesty that after the added trauma women go through for rape kits to be collected, too many sit in evidence lockers. It should make us angry to think about how many rapists are probably roaming free on our streets.

In recent years, about 41 percent of rape cases in California have been solved – a lower clearance rate than for violent crimes overall. In 2015, while about 5,300 rapes statewide were cleared by arrest, another 6,500 rapes went unsolved and unpunished.

It’s unclear exactly how many untested rape kits there are in California, but it’s in the thousands. While the supporters of the tax check-off mean well, it’s highly doubtful it would reduce the backlog very much.

“This is not the ideal approach,” the bill’s author, Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, readily admits. But given the lack of direct funding, it’s what is possible, he says.

“There should not be a backlog at all,” he told me Tuesday. “That’s not the reality.”

His Assembly Bill 280, which passed the Assembly unanimously in May and was endorsed by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday, would use the donations to fund grants to local crime labs. There’s no estimate of how much would be raised, but the 20 tax check-offs raise a total of about $5 million a year. In 2017, a new one for domestic violence victims has brought in $127,000, which would be enough to test about 160 rape kits.


Low says besides raising some money, he hopes the tax check-off will raise public awareness. With that goal, he and the authors of two other rape kit bills held a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Assembly Bill 1312 would prohibit law enforcement agencies from destroying rape kits for at least 20 years and would also strengthen rape victims’ rights and notifications. It’s good to preserve evidence, but if the kits aren’t tested, it just adds to the backlog.

AB 41, designed just to figure out how many rape kits there are, passed the Assembly, but is stuck in the Senate, opposed by the state sheriff’s association over the potential cost. Not knowing how big a problem we have won’t make it go away.

The California Coalition Against Sexual Assault used to help push rape kit bills, but has shifted its priorities. While it’s understandable that many rape survivors care about the issue, “we need a much bigger and deeper approach,” says Emily Austin, the coalition’s director of advocacy.

So this session, it’s sponsoring two other measures. SB 421 would change the sex offender registry so that only the most dangerous ones stay on it for life, allowing attention to focus on them. AB 1268 would fund local sexual assault and domestic violence prevention programs.

As on so many big issues, the Legislature is about making incremental progress. It’s also about setting budget priorities – and testing rape kits is clearly not near the top of the list.

Because of the potential cost, a 2014 bill that would have required testing of new rape kits under strict deadlines was watered down to only encourage law enforcement agencies and crime labs to do so. Last year, a bill to set aside $15 million for law enforcement to analyze rape kits and other forensic evidence in cold cases was shelved.

With our own elected officials hesitant to pay up, California’s sugar daddy has been the district attorney in Manhattan, who in 2015 used civil fines from international banks to award $38 million in grants to 32 jurisdictions to test about 56,000 kits – and potentially solve crimes across the country.

The California Department of Justice got $1.6 million, the Contra Costa District Attorney $1.8 million, the Alameda D.A. $836,000, and the Riverside police $434,000 – enough to process about 6,100 rape kits in all.

This is a national issue that is being spotlighted by advocacy groups, including a foundation started by actress and activist Mariska Hargitay (best known for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” on TV). The foundation sent letters of support for AB 41 and AB 1312, but not the tax check-off bill.

While states are using such “creative” financing approaches, “it remains the duty of the legislature to use general funds first to serve the people and correct injustices,” Lily Rocha, the foundation’s policy and advocacy manager, wrote in March.

California can rightly brag about leading on many criminal justice reforms – to end mass incarceration, to boost rehabilitation and give second chances. But not on this.

As with so many things in life, you get what you pay for – and we’re trying to get justice for rape survivors on the cheap. For too many California women, it’s not justice at all.

Foon Rhee is a columnist and Viewpoints editor for The Sacramento Bee. Connect with him at (916) 321-1913 or @foonrhee or frhee@sacbee.com.