Senators: 'We owe it' to victims to process rape kits

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau


Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Tuesday that addressing the backlog of rape kits is one of the majority party’s top priorities in the first 90 days of the new legislative session.

— Senate Republicans want to put more state funding into investigating and prosecuting rapists linked to Michigan's years-long backlog of untested sexual assault evidence.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Tuesday that addressing the backlog of rape kits is one of the majority party's top priorities in the first 90 days of the new legislative session.

"Having them sit there not examined is really a crime twice," Meekhof said. "And we want to make sure we are diligent in taking care of that."

Meekhof unveiled the Senate Republican caucus' broad agenda Tuesday for the new year. Addressing the rape kit backlog was one of the specific priorities he mentioned.

Other Senate GOP priorities mostly mirror Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's agenda, including addressing a new budget deficit, dealing with a shortage in workers qualified for skilled trades jobs and making education reforms. Meekhof added the Senate has a long-term goal to providing tax relief.

Michigan's problem with rape kits languishing on the shelves of police evidence shelves has been in the spotlight since more than 11,000 evidence boxes were discovered abandoned in 2009 in a Detroit police storage facility. Some of the abandoned rape kits dated back 25 years.

As of October, 10,000 Detroit evidence boxes had been sent to forensics laboratories to be processed. About 8,000 were marked for testing in 2013 through $4 million in state funding from Attorney General Bill Schuette's office.

The Michigan State Police's Forensic Science Division expects to be done analyzing all 11,000-plus rape kits by the end of March, spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Tuesday.

By the end of May, state police investigators hope to have all DNA profiles loaded into a national database known as CODIS or Combined DNA Index System so the results can be sent to Detroit police for further investigation, Brown said.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has been leading the charge to get the kits tested and match DNA evidence collected from assault victims with DNA from convicted sex offenders and other individuals in police databases.

"For our office the pressing need going forward is to have funding for the investigation and prosecution of the rape kits," Worthy spokeswoman Maria Miller said Tuesday. "... The investigative work is much more labor intensive than any other part of the case."

The state's current fiscal year budget includes $3 million in one-time funds for prosecuting sexual assault cases linked to the rape kit testing.

Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said senators want to consider making the sexual assault prosecution funding an annual expense.

"I think we owe it to (the victims) from a public safety standpoint to get these perpetrators off the street," said Hildenbrand, R-Grand Rapids.

Hildenbrand said he plans to consult with Schuette's office on how much money prosecutors need to tackle the influx of new cases.

"Our commitment is to bring justice, but sometimes that doesn't happen overnight," Hildenbrand told The Detroit News.

Sen. Coleman Young II, D-Detroit, offered rare praise for Republican leaders Tuesday for placing an early emphasis on ensuring the rape cases are investigated.

"I think it's just deplorable and totally unacceptable that … we have not gotten on top of this sooner," Young said. "This is long overdue."

Meekhof's announcement comes after the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office earlier this month said it has teamed up with the Michigan Women's Foundation and the Detroit Crime Commission to raise $10 million in public and private money to tackle the backlog of rape kit testing and pay for the investigation and prosecution of unsolved cases.

Money raised in the campaign, named Enough SAID (Sexual Assault in Detroit), will go to the Detroit Crime Commission to create a Cold Case Sexual Assault Team of specially trained detectives and attorneys to handle an estimated 3,000 cases for investigation and prosecution.

Organizers estimate it will cost $2 million annually to fund the team and that it will take about five years to work through all of the cases.

A new law signed last year created the Sexual Assault Kit Tracking and Reporting Commission — whose members include the state attorney general and state police director — to expedite the processing of rape kits by setting statewide guidelines to track the location of a rape kit, the status of the lab involved and test results.

Health workers also must immediately inform victims, who say they have been sexually assaulted with the past five days. about the availability of a rape evidence kit. The old notification requirement was 24 hours.

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