WHETHER A rape victim in Maryland gets justice may depend upon where the attack occurs. A lack of statewide standards governing rape kits allows the state’s dozens of law enforcement agencies to make widely varying decisions about when — and even whether — to examine this potentially vital evidence. Worse, some localities destroy the kits after just a few years. Let’s hope Maryland lawmakers take to heart the recommendations of a recent report urging the establishment of statewide standards.
The backlog of untested rape kits is a national problem that thankfully is finally getting serious attention. Federal legislation passed last year established testing guidelines and victim protections for cases under federal jurisdiction. Grants from the Justice Department and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office have allowed state and local agencies to tackle the backlog of rape kits that have piled up in police departments and crime labs. The kits contain evidence such as samples of blood and semen collected during a lengthy, often grueling, medical examination; once tested, DNA results are entered into a national FBI database.
A report last month by Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) makes clear how far behind Maryland is in dealing with this critical issue. A survey of the state’s 135 law enforcement agencies in which 102 responded revealed 3,700 untested rape kits, some going as far back as 1981. But the report noted that it’s not a backlog in the traditional sense of tests submitted to labs but waitlisted because of a lack of resources and staffing. Instead, a determination was made not to submit them for testing at all. And the patchwork of different policies results in some rape kits being destroyed after a year while others are kept indefinitely. Not only does this not give victims the time they sometimes need in deciding whether to pursue a case but it also robs police of evidence that could be helpful in identifying serial assailants.
The report recommended that police test nearly all rape kits, notify victims of the results and store the kits for a fixed period of time. More than half of the states, the Baltimore Sun reported in its investigation of the handling of sexual assault crimes, have laws mandating a minimum time period to retain evidence. Included here is Virginia, where a change in the law last year, coupled with the success of Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) in getting new money for testing, has the state well on its way to eliminating its backlog of untested kits.
Maryland should follow Virginia’s example, starting with legislation this session to establish the best practices detailed in the attorney general’s report and coming up with the funding to make them possible.