ANNAPOLIS — If online shoppers can track their orders, Maryland should be able to track sexual assault evidence kits, Delegate Karen Lewis Young said.
Lewis Young introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would require Maryland State Police to create a statewide universal tracking system, following kits from hospital rooms to laboratories to police and prosecution storage facilities, and beyond.
The bill stems from an Office of the Attorney General report released earlier this year that found that police agencies statewide have about 3,700 untested kits.
Lewis Young — who sponsored the 2015 bill that prompted the attorney general’s report — said a statewide tracking system is necessary, so “no kit ever gets forgotten on a shelf again.”
There are concerns, however, about the potential cost of the legislation if it is passed.
A nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services audit concluded that it could cost “several million dollars” to create a tracking system and at least half a million dollars per year for auditors, but no precise figures were available.
Local law enforcement agencies and state’s attorneys’ offices that responded to the legislative analysts gave varying estimates of local costs. Charles and Frederick counties and the city of Frederick told analysts that the bill’s requirements could be implemented with existing resources. On the other hand, the city of Havre de Grace predicted a significant increase in personnel costs.
Lewis Young, D-District 3A, said the vague prediction of high costs may be unfounded.
For instance, Washington state has a similar program that can be emulated or purchased, she said.
“These [tracking] systems exist today. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” she said Tuesday at a hearing on the bill in the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill would let the state phase in costs of the tracking program over 18 months.
For context, legislative analysts wrote that the sex offender registry maintained by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services — which does not require the access and maintenance required by the bill — has exceeded $70 million to create and maintain the system.
Accounting for untested kits
Lewis Young’s bill would require police agencies to keep sexual assault evidence kits for 20 years, in line with the standard Congress created when it passed the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act last year.
Currently, Maryland police agencies vary widely in their timelines for destroying untested kits — from 90 days to indefinite retention.
Statewide, about 60 percent of untested kits included in the attorney general’s report were collected between 2009 and 2016. Five percent were collected between 1981 and 1997, and the rest were collected between 1998 and 2009.
More than 90 percent of untested kits were in the custody of 13 of the 102 police agencies that responded to the attorney general’s office.
Police in Montgomery County and Baltimore City had the most untested kits, with 1,165 and 871, respectively.
But Montgomery County police retain all untested kits indefinitely, which increases their figure.
The Frederick Police Department ranked sixth in the state, with a total of 143 untested kits in the report, Lt. Clark Pennington, commander of the department’s Criminal Investigation Division. He said that number did not represent a backlog in the department.
“A large portion of those, more than 70 to 75 percent, are going to be from cases where we might have collected a kit from a victim who either knows or identifies an attacker and, during the course of that investigation, the suspect admits that there was intercourse, or admits that there is DNA,” Pennington said.
Because the suspect was identified by the alleged victim and admits there is DNA evidence, results of those kits are not key to the department’s investigation, he said.
Of the remaining untested kits, many cases involve accusers who recanted or cases that were otherwise deemed unfounded, Pennington said.
“We went through each and every one of those rape kits and we have no untested rape kits that need to go to the lab at this point,” he said. “It may be a problem in other locations, but we are not seeing a large backlog of untested kits here in Frederick.”
Neither the Frederick Police Department nor the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office runs its own crime lab.
City police typically send their kits and other evidence for DNA testing to the Maryland State Police crime lab. Sometimes, they go to Bode Cellmark Forensics, a private lab in Lorton, Virginia, Pennington said.
The sheriff’s office had 32 untested kits at the time of the attorney general’s report.
Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R) investigated rape and sexual assault cases for 15 years. While there are many reasons a kit might be untested, it’s a priority for departments to send kits for lab testing. In some cases, such as a “stranger rape,” the sheriff’s office keeps evidence kits indefinitely, he said.
Lewis Young’s bill is one of several in the General Assembly this year to reform sexual assault kit testing policies in light of the attorney general’s report.