Editorial: New rape kit law the right step for Indiana

When someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S. — and that happens every minute and a half — the victim may undergo a forensic examination soon afterward to collect evidence in what is commonly known as a rape kit, which can be used to bring the perpetrator to justice.

Statistics show that one of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Putting together a rape kit involves a full body scan of the victim and swabbing for forensic evidence and could take several hours. If a victim decides to report a sexual assault and go through the legal process, the evidence needs to be analyzed before it can be used as a tool for possible prosecution.

The problem is hundreds of thousands of rape kits end up sitting untested on shelves in law enforcement facilities across the country. That may change in Indiana, thanks to a new law.

When News-Sentinel.com addressed the problem in December 2017, Indiana law did not require law enforcement agencies to count, track or test rape kits. A statewide audit published in November of that year identified 5,396 backlogged rape kits in Indiana; 2,560 of those could have been used as potential evidence in reported crimes.

Allen County had 772 untested rape kits in the audit, according to former Allen County Deputy Prosecutor Laurie A. Gray, the statewide sexual assault response team coordinator at the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault. She stated in a letter to the editor that 464 of those “represent victims still waiting to be acknowledged for our criminal justice system.”

In 2017 we supported the introduction of legislation by Republican Sens. Michael Crider and Eric Houchin that urged state police to conduct an audit of untested sexual assault kits that may have lingered in evidence collection rooms across the state for years. And we were hoping lawmakers would agree to encourage local police agencies to submit their untested kits for examination as soon as possible.

The Joyful Heart Foundation, a national nonprofit, launched an End the Backlog campaign in 2010 to improve sexual violence response by ending the backlog of these untested kits. It worked with Indiana legislators to uncover rape kit backlogs and implement reform in Indiana.

The group’s website said, “the backlog of untested rape kits represents the failure of the criminal justice system to take sexual assault seriously, prioritize the testing of rape kits, protect survivors and hold offenders accountable.”

We are happy to report that the Indiana General Assembly this year passed Senate Enrolled Act 424, giving rape victims the ability to track the progress of their rape kits through the investigative process. The new law took effect July 1.

A special barcode on each kit will be scanned and updated in the system to allow victims, using private login information, to track their location in the testing process. Victims will be able to follow their rape kits from the time it is picked up from the hospital by police through when it goes to the crime lab for analysis and when it returns to storage. They will also be notified of its destruction.

The Joyful Heart Foundation website says, “When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant, link crimes together and identify serial offenders. It can also confirm the presence of a known suspect, affirm the survivor’s account of the attack, discredit the suspect and exonerate the innocent.”

Indiana’s new law is a significant step forward for the state in both the handling of evidence in sexual assault cases and also the sharing of that information with victims.