By Susan Rose
Special to Calbuzz
As the governor’s wife, Maria Shriver, attracted national media attention for a new report aimed at helping working women balance jobs and family, Gov. Schwarzenegger himself was busy vetoing legislation to help secure justice for women who are victims of sexual assault.
The vetoed bill would have required local jurisdictions to report annually to the California Department of Justice the number of rape kits in police storage facilities, and whether they have been tested or destroyed. By requiring agencies to keep track of evidence, it would make them accountable to victims of rape; the measure, AB 1017 by Pasadena Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, won easy approval in both houses.
Rape kits are used to gather medical evidence necessary to prosecute alleged rapists. The collection of DNA is an invasive process often lasting many hours, but it can help identify attackers as well as provide matches to other criminals in existing databases. A backlog of untested kits means that prosecution may not occur and rapists remain free. In the meantime, rape victims are often kept uninformed about the status of their case and so feel victimized twice.
For over a year, Human Rights Watch staff and volunteers in Los Angeles researched the rape kit backlog to determine the exact number of untested kits. In March they released a report, “Testing Justice,” that documented more than 12,000 untested kits in city and county storage facilities.
An effort led by volunteers who advocated for funding and LA City Controller Laura Chick, who is now California Inspector General and who conducted an audit of the LAPD, generated news coverage to put pressure on elected officials who finally stepped up. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Third District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky negotiated more funding for technical staff, to reduce the backlog and to sustain the effort.
The Governor’s veto statement of AB 1017 “acknowledged the need to ensure that rape kits are analyzed and processed in a timely manner.” In contrast to L.A. officials, however, his concern about cost outweighed his regard for the right to justice of victims of rape.
It is cruelly ironic that the veto came at the same time Shriver was attracting national attention for “The Women’s Nation,” the widely covered report encouraging government and employers to increase support for working women who must balance jobs and family.
Despite Shriver’s political agenda, and amid a raft of budget cuts affecting women and children – including $16 million from domestic violence programs and $50 million from Healthy Families – the rape kit veto underscored the message that women in California count for less in the Schwarzenegger regime.
Susan Rose served two terms on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and is currently Vice-Chair of the Santa Barbara Human Rights Committee.