Nevada could be making a dent in its extensive backlog of untested rape kits — a backlog that’s grown to roughly 8,000 over the last three decades. That’s if the legislature passes a bill heard last Wednesday in the assembly judiciary committee that would require police to send rape kits to be tested in a lab within 30 days of receiving that kit.
Rape kits, also known as sexual assault forensic evidence or SAFE kits, are a collection of physical evidence gathered by police and a nurse or doctor following a reported sexual assault. That evidence is then sent off to a forensic lab that tests those materials for DNA evidence. These testings can be expensive, around $1,500 each, and have proven a thorny issue for police jurisdictions around the country.
Sponsored by Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, and Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, the bill would seek to cut into the thousands of rape kits — about 6,500 in southern Nevada and 1,500 in northern Nevada — that remain untested. Even since the issue came to the fore in late 2014 when a nationwide backlog of 400,000 rape kits was revealed, Nevada has only cut its number of untested kits by about 900.
The bill also represents a bipartisan consensus between the Republican Attorney General’s Office, represented in the meeting by Wes Duncan, Nevada’s first assistant attorney general and legislative Democrats. Both groups have been working since 2015 to address the issue.
Ford said that it is an “injustice” that the state has let the backlog grow so large in the first place.
“This examination can be a painful process for survivors of sexual assault,” Ford said. “Once that evidence is collected, it is imperative that it is processed in a timely and expeditious manner. And so far, our state, the state of Nevada, has been derelict in its duty to support survivors of sexual assault.”
Originally, the bill contained language that would require forensic labs to test materials sent to them by police within 180 days. However, that language will likely be removed at the behest of the state’s law enforcement agencies, who say that it would be too costly (to the tune of about $3 million over the next four years) and that it would hurt their ability to prioritize kits within the backlog, some of which date back to the 1980s.
Benitez-Thompson said that the amendment is necessary, and while it would no longer bind forensic labs to a hard provide a soft guideline to see whether or not these labs were testing kits in a timely matter.
The introduction of AB 97 comes after rape kits became a hot-button issue in the race for Nevada’s open U.S. senate seat in 2016. Former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez-Masto, who eventually won the seat, was accused by a slate of attack ads of ignoring the backlog during her time as the state’s top law officer.
Those ads were found half-true in an analysis by PolitiFact, which noted little evidence that Cortez-Masto, a long-time advocate for victims of sexual violence, moved to solve the backlog problem.
Indeed there were questions from Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, about why the measure is just coming up now. He asked of the bill’s sponsor, Benitez-Thompson, if anyone should be “hung, drawn and quartered” for the delay. While she didn’t have a name to be drawn and quartered, she did say that many jurisdictions, including the legislature, had dropped the ball.
“We have a chance with this legislation to right a wrong, to make sure this backlog never happens again,” Benitez-Thompson said. “This issue is so important, it, quite frankly, rises above politics.”
And while there were no legislators opposed to the bill, partisanship did still manage to sneak its way into the meeting. Republican legislators made a point to praise the current attorney general, Republican Adam Laxalt, for his efforts in putting the bill together while committee chair Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, made a point of his own in praising former Vice President Joe Biden’s initiative to provide federal money for the issue.
Jacob Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.