On Governor's Desk: Bills to Test Rape Kits, Lift Rape Statute of Limitations
SALEM, Ore. - Oregon's 2016 legislative session has ended, leaving a stack of bills on Gov. Kate Brown's desk to be signed into law.
Two of those bills address sexual assault. Senate Bill 1600 lifts the statute of limitations to prosecute first-degree sex crimes from its current 12-year limit.
Senate Bill 1571 directs police departments to prioritize processing untested sexual-assault kits by next January, with $1.5 million to the state police crime lab to help with the backlog.
Ilse Knecht is director of policy and advocacy of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that helps victims of sexual violence.
"We have the ability, by mandating swift testing of every sexual assault kit, to send this powerful message to survivors that they and their cases matter, what happens to them matters," says Knecht. "And also, a message to perpetrators that they will be held accountable for their crimes."
Sexual-assault kits are collected from victims and used to test for DNA evidence. As of last year, Oregon State Police said they had over 5,500 untested kits, dating back to 1983.
That bill is known as "Melissa's Law," after a 2001 case in which 14-year-old Melissa Bittler was killed by a serial rapist. The same person had assaulted two teenage girls four years earlier, but the sexual-assault kits in those cases were untested at the time of Melissa's death.
While testing a kit can cost between $500 and $1,500, Knecht says the bigger problem is some police departments' failure to prioritize sexual-assault cases.
"It's a systemic failure that we have refused to put them on priority, and to take the crime seriously for the dangerous crime that it is," says Knecht.
According to the Joyful Heart Foundation, Oregon joins 24 other states enacting reforms for the tracking and testing of sexual-assault kits.