New law standardizes the way rape kits are stored in South Dakota
Rape kits contain evidence collected through a medical exam after a rape, and can later be used to help find and prosecute a perpetrator.
If victims don’t choose to report, current law dictates that rape kits are kept at the hospital for one year.
This gives victims the option to use the kit as evidence should they decide to report the crime to law enforcement within that time.
However, officials say that in South Dakota, there are inconsistencies from hospital to hospital in terms of how kits are stored, and that’s a problem if victims choose to prosecute — because it could compromise evidence.
The new law mandates that hospitals hand the kits over to law enforcement agencies to be stored.
According to Rep. Tim Reed, one of the major proponents of the law, “The U.S. Department of Justice has commented that this is the best practice. It’s the way it should be done. Why? Law enforcement knows best the chain-of-custody, which is extremely important in court cases. Law enforcement also knows the best way to store evidence.”
The chain-of-custody refers to the handling and transfer of rape kits, and if it’s not clearly and consistently documented, the integrity of a kit can be called into question in court.
According to Deb Fischer-Clemens, senior vice president of public policy at Avera, the issue is a real problem in South Dakota under the current system, “When I did the research of our 30 hospitals across the area, what I found is that some law enforcement did take the Jane Doe kit at certain hospitals. And so the message had to be different for that victim then it was at facilities where kits were kept.”
Advocates say the new law will ensure there is a consistent system for storing the kits, and that they’re stored properly so that evidence isn’t accidentally damaged or destroyed.
As an added bonus, the rules will help ensure that public funds used to cover the cost of collecting rape kits, which can reportedly cost upwards of $1000, are used efficiently and effectively.
Additionally, proponents hope it could lead to more rapes being reported and prosecuted. On average only 230 out of every 1000 victims choose to report the crime to law enforcement. Experts say one reason for this is a general public perception that the criminal justice system treats victims poorly and lets perpetrators off with lenient sentences.
Of the 230 victims that do report, only 46 lead to an arrest, 9 are referred to prosecutors and 5 cases will result in a felony. Less than 5 will end with the perpetrator being incarcerated.
Ultimately, advocates hope the new law will be a small step towards promoting best practices in the system, and better outcomes for victims seeking justice.