Committee unanimously approves Sen. Rafferty bill to implement sexual assault kit tracking system in Maine

Posted: May 23, 2023 | Criminal Justice and Public Safety, Senator Rafferty

AUGUSTA – Earlier this month, the Legislature’s Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Rafferty, D-Kennebunk, that stands up for sexual assault survivors by requesting a report back from the Maine Department of Public Safety on its progress implementing a statewide sexual assault tracking kit system, representing a crucial first step to achieve comprehensive sexual assault reform in Maine. The bill LD 1484, “An Act to Improve Sexual Assault Kit Tracking,” was passed by the committee with unanimous, bipartisan support. 

“I got the idea for this bill after having some talks with my youngest daughter, Danielle, last summer. She’s always been really aware of what’s going on and we’ve had many heartfelt discussions over the years. Recently, she pointed out to me that Maine’s response to rape cases was severely lacking compared to other states,” explained Sen. Rafferty. “Once I knew about this, I realized we had to do better. So, with the help of the folks from the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA), we came up with a plan. Since introducing this bill, the Department of Public Safety has heard our concerns and plans to do what we originally sought. Now, we’ve changed this bill to be sure that this happens and in a reasonable timeframe. I am grateful that the Department heard us, and above all else, I am grateful we are making progress on this issue.” 

Each year, about 14,000 Mainers experience sexual violence. A small number of those who experience sexual violence access the criminal justice system. This bill would make an important improvement to how the criminal justice system responds to survivors of sexual violence on an individual basis and would allow us to gather more information systemically.  

Currently in Maine, when a survivor of sexual violence gets a sexual assault forensic examination, they have two choices: complete their kit anonymously without making a report to law enforcement, or complete their kit and report their sexual assault to law enforcement.  Maintaining the anonymous option is important, because it allows survivors to access essential medical care in the form of treatment for injuries and for pregnancy and HIV prevention, without needing to make a police report if they do not feel that is safe to do so. Survivors can, and often do, choose to report their sexual assault and provide their sexual assault forensic examination as evidence for a law enforcement investigation. No matter which option a survivor chooses, their kit is held for at least eight years. If they initially chose to make an anonymous report, they can later change their mind during this time.  

Pursuant to Maine law, if a person reports a sexual assault, law enforcement has 60 days to investigate the assault before being required to pass the case along to the local district attorney’s office. 

The Maine Department of Public Safety is planning on creating a sexual assault tracking system, and has begun identifying federal grants to begin this process. As amended, LD 1484 would seek a report back from the Maine Department of Public Safety to the Legislature’s Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety in the second half of the legislative session about the status of any federal grant applications to launch a rape kit tracking system in Maine. If applications have been successful, the expectation is that the collected data will be used to continue to move Maine forward with regard to sexual assault kit data collection and testing. Alternatively, the Committee can revisit whether there is a need to create a position at the Department of Public Safety in statute to meet these goals. 

Having a kit tracking system allows survivors access to information about their kit without having to make phone calls during their day to law enforcement and prosecutor’s offices, who are often very busy. In some cases, survivors may not feel safe to make such a call in the middle of their day. A kit tracking system would allow survivors to access the information when and where they want to. In addition, it allows the State of Maine to better track and access data about kits generally. Creating an inventory of existing kits allows officials to better understand if there are reported kits that are not being tested, and, if so, the reasons why those kits are not being tested.  

End the Backlog is a national nonprofit organization with the mission to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse; support survivors’ healing; and end this violence forever. They advocate for rape kit reform legislation and policies based on their six pillars of reform. Maine is the only state in the country that has not passed any of these six pillars of reform

“We need to build a system that supports survivors in the long-term. This inventory system would improve accessibility for survivors to keep track of the status of their own kits. Having access to this knowledge can be vital in their own process of healing and allows survivors to choose what actions they wish to pursue. Moving through the legal system is a traumatic experience. We need to ensure that we working toward building a framework that supports survivors unconditionally,” said Sen. Jill Duson, D-Portland, in testimony supporting the bill during the public hearing. “It is time for us to reform our systems to better support survivors statewide. This bill is an incremental and critical step forward in the right direction.” 

Melissa Martin, Public Policy and Legal Director of MECASA, also testified in support of LD 1484: 

“Over the last few years, we have been grappling with what reforms make sense in Maine. Three have risen to the top – how to give survivors easy access to real-time data about the status of their kits, how to get a better statewide handle on the status of kits from hospital to LE emergency to crime lab, and which kits, beyond those which are headed to prosecution, should be processed,” said Martin. “This bill is the critical next step in addressing these issues. It would help us get a kit tracking system up and running in Maine, which will provide desperately needed data about where kits are in the process and, we hope, give us a better sense of the myriad of reasons why kits are not making it to the lab.” The bill now faces votes before the Senate and House.