Sexual assault knows no boundaries of age, race, or social class. It is a plague on our society, endangering people from all walks of life.
For more than two decades, my professional career focused on helping survivors of sexual assault in various ways: hearing stories of violence as a YWCA domestic violence victim advocate; seeing the immediate physical and emotional harm caused to survivors as a registered nurse; helping survivors seek justice through the court system as a deputy county attorney and also as an attorney representing crime victims; as a legislator, working with and leading bipartisan coalitions to improve Montana’s laws so survivors are protected, perpetrators of sexual assaults are held accountable, and communities are protected.
In all these experiences, the ways this crime poisons our society and causes lifelong impacts for survivors could not have been more apparent. It is crystal clear our state needs reform to ensure survivors of sexual assault have a law enforcement and court system at their backs to help them recover and find justice.
Since 2015, I have been honored to serve the people of Montana as the legislative representative on the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Task Force. This task force was created to determine the extent of untested rape kits (collected evidence after a sexual assault occurs) in Montana and craft a path forward so such a backlog did not occur again. We identified a backlog of 1,252 kits dating from 1995 through 2015. These backlogged kits have now been tested but more reform has to happen to improve the handling of sexual assault kits.
Senate Bill 52, sponsored by Sen. Diane Sands for the Department of Justice, implements changes to improve the response to sexual assaults. This bill establishes timely testing of every sexual assault kit after a victim consents to providing the kit to law enforcement. The kit is then sent to the state crime lab for testing within 30 days of law enforcement receiving the kit. A statewide confidential kit tracking system is created, as well as a model form about the rights of sexual assault survivors. This bill would be a huge step toward justice for survivors of sexual assault.
The changes in SB52 are essential to protecting Montanans and making our communities safer. Testing every kit is necessary because it allows identification of serial perpetrators of sexual assault. Tragically, statistics show that most sexual assault predators commit the crime more than once. A 2016 Case Western Reserve University analysis of untested rape kit results in Ohio determined over 50 percent of the rapists identified were serial rapists, sexually assaulting more than one individual. This suggests sexual offenders have either sexually assaulted someone in the past, or will do so again in the future.
Having served on the finance committees for the past seven years in the Montana Legislature, I know that our budget reflects our priorities and values. Prioritizing funding for essential programs that ensure public safety is critically important. Testing every sexual assault kit in a timely manner is crucial. That’s why I worked this session to ensure we funded a DNA analyst for the Montana State Crime Lab to process these kits. This funding will help process rape kits in a timely manner, ensuring a backlog does not occur again due to a lack of resources.
These reforms will identify sexual assault perpetrators and stop them from attacking more individuals. But most importantly, these reforms will help survivors of sexual assault find justice and move past the trauma they have suffered. It’s time to do the right thing and make Montana’s communities safer.