‘We were looking at almost a year to get a kit tested’: New Tennessee law tackles backlogged rape kits

Crime Tracker

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A new law in Tennessee will now help sexual assault survivors track the rape kits associated with their case.

The Jim Coley Rape Survivors Protection Act went into effect on July first. State Representative Bob Freeman, a Democrat from Nashville, sponsored HB39 and said the bipartisan legislation allows rape victims to regain a sense of control in their lives.

The law now requires the state to give a tracking number to each rape kit as it’s taken, and victims can then track cases themselves, as well.

“If the kit is sitting in the sheriff’s office, if it’s still in process to be tested, if it’s been tested but there’s been no hit, all of those steps along the way, they can watch and properly advocate for themselves,” said Freeman. “It gives them a voice back which is so important in situations like that.”

The bill creates new provisions about the process of collecting, storing, and tracking evidence from forensic medical examinations. According to the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, Memphis had about 12,000 untested kits, Knoxville had 400, and Nashville had 200.

“When I first took office, they give you a bunch of information and one of those was a download of outstanding and untested rape kits, predominantly in Memphis but all across our state. It also had the timeline from receiving the kit to when it was tested and both of those were unacceptable,” said Freeman. “We were looking at almost a year to get a kit tested. When I started digging in, I realized many people didn’t know what was going on. So they would go through a horrific experience and then make the tough decision, which it is – most occurrences of rape are by someone that you know. To think that they go through that whole process and the kit doesn’t get tested is just unacceptable.”

The law requires healthcare providers to notify law enforcement that a kit is ready for release, within 24 hours of concluding the examination, and the law enforcement agency has to pick up the kit for storage or transmission within 48 hours of being notified by the healthcare provider. The process will also change where when an adult victim elects not to report an alleged offense, following a forensic medical examination, they still get an ID number for their rape kit along with information about where and how long the kit will be held, and how to make a police report.

Representative Freeman said they were intentional when writing the law to allow the rape victim to track their kit using a number, instead of their name.

“It anonymizes it. It allows people to track the criminal process without someone doing an open record search and finding a name,” explained Freeman. “Part of that is we have a lot of that is we have a lot of victim-blaming and shaming that goes along with that and this belief idea that you shouldn’t have worn that, you shouldn’t have been there, you shouldn’t have too much to drink, yada yada yada, it’s just…. we’ve gotta change that.”

Another change he hopes comes in the future is additional funding for more workers to analyze the kits quickly.

“Last year’s budget we had seven new positions for forensic analysts so that’s a good start but we ought to get this stuff turned around pretty quickly,” he said. “Because the likelihood of someone victimizing just one person is very slim. Most of these cases are repeat so the longer somebody can stay on the street without a match being done and without them being brought to justice the more people they can victimize.”

Because of this new legislation, law enforcement have to submit a rape kit to the TBI or other qualified lab within 30 days of collecting it instead of sixty days. Representative Freeman says law enforcement agencies are now working to implement the changes. Through a Federal Grant Program, the electronic tracking system is free to TBI.

According to the latest stats from Metro police as of June 26th, there have been more than 200 incidents of rape reported so far this year in Nashville, which is a seven percent increase compared to the same time period in 2020. In the Central precinct, rape cases went up by 125 percent from eight to 18 between this year and last year. The Hermitage precinct saw a 43 percent increase with 66 rape incidents reported so far in 2021.

“This is one of those things that we need to talk about more,” Freeman urged. “The high percentage of women who are victims of rape and sexual abuse and men who are victims of rape and sexual abuse, this idea that it’s not happening or if we talk about it it’s somehow impolite or improper to discuss, we’ve got to get past it.”

The legislation passed both chambers of the house and senate unanimously.

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