Legislature turns back on thousands of sexual assault victims

North Carolina has one of the largest backlogs of untested rape kits in the country.
North Carolina has one of the largest backlogs of untested rape kits in the country. AP file

North Carolina’s Legislature did a smart thing last year to start addressing the state’s unconscionable backlog of rape kits. But now it is failing to take the next critical step — and so is neglecting thousands of victims of sexual assault.

In last year’s budget, the General Assembly sensibly required all local law enforcement departments to conduct an inventory of how many untested sexual assault evidence kits they had and report that number to the state crime lab. Ninety-two percent did so, and the Justice Department found that there were 15,160 untested kits scattered around the state.

That makes North Carolina one of the worst states in the nation for rape-kit backlogs, perhaps the worst. There’s no national standard for counting, and not all states keep track. But the Joyful Heart Foundation, which tracks the issue, says North Carolina has the highest number of untested rape kits of any state where data is available.

In response, Attorney General Josh Stein asked the Legislature for $2 million to start testing the kits. It would cost $10.6 million to test all 15,000, but Stein’s request was a start. He also asked the Legislature to create and fund a system to track the untested kits, and to create a committee that would recommend which kits to test first and how to test all kits going forward.

In the budget being passed this week, the Legislature included zero. It also didn't fund the tracking system and legislation to create the committee is pending. So the backlog will grow, and justice for sexual assault victims will be delayed.

“Every one of us should be focused on trying to bring justice to more people who suffered a heinous crime,” Stein told the Observer editorial board.

Seven Republican senators, all female, issued a statement this week saying Gov. Roy Cooper failed to clear the backlog when he was attorney general. Cooper could have done more, but saying so does nothing to solve the problem now. Those senators and their colleagues should focus less on scoring political points and more on solving a shameful problem.

Of the 15,160 untested kits, about 3,800 are from cases that have been resolved in court or in which the suspect admitted to the act in question. About 400 kits came from victims who wanted to remain anonymous, so the kits cannot be tested by law.

Another 3,800 cases are labeled unfounded by local authorities, though without testing the kits that finding worries some victim advocates.

That leaves more than 7,000 kits that have simply sat untested. Collecting this evidence can be traumatic for victims in the immediate aftermath of an assault, and they deserve much better than to have that evidence sit on a shelf. These are real people, many of whom have suffered atrocious crimes. The backlog is a travesty for victims, and testing the kits could also prevent future attacks.

Sadly, more kits are being created every day. Without funding from the Legislature, those will sit collecting dust, too.