Sexual assault kit bill garners unanimous support in Va. Senate
RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Virginia lawmakers are working across the aisle to help protect victims of sexual assault and their evidence.
On Thursday, the state Senate unanimously approved SB658, which would preserve Physical Evidence Recovery Kits (PERKs) for at least a decade. It would also require a tracking system so victims could monitor the evidence themselves.
Over the last few years, there has been a heavy focus on these PERKS. Now, lawmakers are looking to ensure this evidence is stored correctly statewide.
Under Virginia law, the Department of Forensic Science provides PERKs to health care providers to collect evidence from victims of sexual assault during forensic medical examinations and to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for death investigations in which the deceased may have been a victim of sexual assault.
“Right now, we are in the general evidence storage area,” said Henrico Police Evidence Unit Supervisor, Jay Hall.
Hall is in charge of ensuring everything collected from a Henrico County crime scene is cataloged correctly.
“We’re currently storing over 41,000 pieces of evidence and over 100,000 items,” he said.
That includes evidence from sexual assaults.
Since 2016, the policy for Henrico Police has been to store the kits for 10 years; currently, there are over 700 PERKs.
That’s in line with a bill sponsored by Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), approved by the state Senate on Thursday, requiring all law enforcement agencies to keep them for 10 years.
Beyond that, victims who are minors would have their kits stored for 10 years after they turn 18.
“It also ensures that no matter how much time passes, or who is investigating the crime, that the physical evidence will be there,” McClellan said.
That is even more important for victims who may not come forward right away.
“Giving them more time to make that very difficult decision and giving everyone involved in our criminal justice system the opportunity to hold offenders accountable - these things are immeasurable as far as the progress these things bring to the state,” said Kate Hanger, Executive Director of the Virginia Victim Assistance Network.
The Commonwealth has seen progress. The PERK backlog was eliminated in 2020 under the former administration.
A tracking system is also now available for victims to keep their eyes on the evidence, something that’s also included in McClellan’s bill.
“It’s giving victims more control over what happened to them and what’s going to happen moving forward,” Hanger said.
“Each PERK that is submitted to the Evidence Unit for tracking is also submitted to the Virginia Department OF Forensic Science Physical Evidence Recovery Kit Tracking System,” Hall said. “This system will be able to tack each PERK as well, through every step in the process, including its distribution as an uncollected kit to the collection site (e.g., hospitals) through collection, transfer to law enforcement, submission to the laboratory for analysis, and return to the law enforcement agency for storage.”
However, there are some concerns over what might happen for smaller police agencies and their storage space. A spokesperson for McClellan’s office said the vast majority of the kits would be transferred to and stored with the Office of the Medical Examiner in Richmond or another larger law enforcement agency.
For Henrico, Hall said their storage unit should not be a problem.
“We are quite fortunate we are in a newer building, newer facility, and we can store up to thousands of kits,” he added.
McClellan also stresses the importance of storing these critical pieces of physical evidence.
“We’ve seen physical evidence not only help convict people but sometimes exonerate people,” she said. “We just want to make sure that we’re keeping it available.”
Meanwhile, there are rules for how these kits should be destroyed.
“To destroy these evidentiary items, a Commonwealth Attorney or sworn supervisory approval must be obtained,” Hall said.
SB658 is expected to move over to the House of Delegates in the near future for discussion.
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