New York State will be hiring an additional 26 forensic scientists in order to catch up on a state backlog of thousands of untested sexual assault kits. It has not yet been stated exactly when these hires will be made, but New York State Police Superintendent George Beach recently told state lawmakers that his agency already has approval to make the hires.
SUNY New Paltz sociology professor Eve Waltermaurer, who is teaching a course this semester titled “Violence Against Women,” spoke in favor of the hires.
“I think it’s safe to say anything that improves the process would be a plus,” she said. “During this time that women have to wait for their trial to be seen through they could be exposed to violence, decide to retract [their accusation] or disappear. Any effort to make this process as speedy as possible would be great.”
These hires are being made in addition to a bill signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last November requiring police and prosecutorial agencies to submit untested sexual assault kits to appropriate forensic laboratories for testing. New kits received after the passing of this law must be sent within 10 days of their receipt, while kits already in possession prior to the law’s passing must be submitted within 30 days. Police and prosecutorial agencies originally had 180 days to submit old sexual assault kits, however this time allocation was reduced following amendments made on Dec. 23, 2016.
Forensic laboratories are also being given more stringent deadlines, as the new law gives labs 90 days to create eligible profiles for potential perpetrators to be put into the criminal justice DNA databases based off the evidence from tested kits.
The exact number of backlogged sexual assault kits is currently unclear, however the new law dictates all police and prosecutorial agencies in possession of any sexual assault kits must inventory them and report the total number to the forensic laboratory that will be testing them by March 1, 2017. This process will then be repeated on a monthly basis thereafter.
In attempts to bolster the process of testing sexual assault kits further, a New York State bill, created on Jan. 20, 2017, authorizes the division of criminal justice services to create a system that tracks the location and status of sexual assault kits throughout the criminal justice system. This bill will also require semi-annual reports to Cuomo and legislature.
While these legislative changes remain integral to the process of testing sexual assault kits, Waltermaurer believes there are other steps that should have been taken first.
“A better first step might be to figure out what we can do for these women, even without the evidentiary proof. It’s a structural change,” she said. “Make the assumption that they’re telling the truth, that this woman has been harmed, needs help and needs to feel safe. Make the assumption that it really did occur in terms of taking care of her and then you can deal with the evidence to figure out what to do with the potential perpetrator. You’re not an offender until you’re found guilty, but you are a victim immediately.”