As a long-time advocate for the victims of sexual and domestic abuse, Gretchen Hunt finds that she still has to dispel public misconceptions about the prevalence of sex-related violence in American society.
“Some people may think that children or others make up these crimes,” Hunt says. “What we know is that the FBI estimates that between 92 to 98 percent of reports of sex violence are truthful.”
Hunt is the new director of the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office for Victims Advocacy. She appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss her work and the legislation her office supported during the 2016 General Assembly.
A Bipartisan Effort to Protect the Vulnerable
Created by the Kentucky Victims Bill of Rights of 1986, the victims advocacy office works for justice and healing to help those affected by crime, and it promotes legislation that can help prevent future crimes. Hunt says she views the work to protect the state’s most vulnerable citizens as a non-partisan effort.
“Our office is not about politics with these bills,” Hunt says. “We’ll work with anybody across the aisle on getting good legislation passed.”
One key bill Hunt’s office worked on this year sought to close a loophole that undermined the testimony of the youngest victims of violence.
In 2015, the Kentucky Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man accused of sexually abusing his six-year old stepdaughter. Despite the evidence against the man, state law at the time did not allow for testimony in which a victim could not recall the dates when they were abused. In making its ruling, Hunt says the justices called on lawmakers to fix what the court and many advocates saw as a flaw in Kentucky statutes.
Senate Bill 60, also known as the Continuing Course of Conduct Bill, closes that loophole, according to Hunt. She says it’s not realistic to expect children or those with disabilities to recall each episode of abuse by date, time, and location. The legislation, which Gov. Matt Bevin signed into law in April, lifts the burden of a victim having to provide those details in order for a prosecutor to prove a sequence of abuse events occurred.
Faster Processing for DNA Evidence
Hunt says the other significant legislative victory this session addressed the handling of so-called “rape kits” that collect DNA evidence from the victims of sexual assault. A review conducted by former state Auditor Adam Edelen found that more than 3,000 kits collected by law enforcement officials around Kentucky had not been processed by the state police crime lab to check the DNA samples against a national database of perpetrators.
Hunt says the backlog resulted from a number of factors, including the failure of local police departments to send kits to Frankfort for testing, and an under-resourced state forensics lab that was months behind in processing the evidence.
Senate Bill 63 seeks to resolve a range of issues contributing to the problem. Hunt says rape victims already have the right to go to any hospital in the state and get a sexual assault forensic exam at no cost. Because some victims wait to report their assault, Hunt says the new law requires hospitals to save the rape kits for one year. The legislation also provides incentives to hospitals to staff specially trained sexual assault nurse examiners to care for victims and ensure proper evidence collection.
On the law enforcement side, Hunt says SB 63 requires all local police agencies to submit rape kits to the state for testing. She says officers sometimes mistakenly assume that the sexual act may have been consensual, but testing the DNA could reveal that the perpetrator is connected to multiple incidents of sexual violence. Once the kits are submitted to Frankfort, the law requires the Kentucky State Police forensics lab to test the evidence within 90 days.
Hunt says KSP received a grant from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York City to address the current backlog. She says the state Attorney General’s office is providing additional funding that’s been allocated from a legal settlement with pharmaceutical companies. Once legislators appropriate additional dollars, the lab will be required to process the DNA evidence within 60 days.
Finally, Hunt says law enforcement will be required to save rape kits for 50 years.
“That’s a long time, but remember, there is no statute of limitations on rape,” Hunt says. “It’s a felony crime.”
Gov. Bevin signed SB 63 into law in early April. Hunt says many of the reforms in the legislation won’t take effect until January 2017.
Not All Legislative Efforts Succeed
The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services indicates that reports of child trafficking are increasing by about 50 percent a year. But Hunt says only about one in 10 of those reports are ever investigated.
Human trafficking is defined as using force, fraud, or coercion to exploit children or adults for the purposes of labor or commercial sex. Two bills introduced in the recent legislative session sought to give the attorney general’s office concurrent jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases with local law enforcement agencies. Despite bipartisan support and backing from some prosecutors, Hunt says House Bill 229 and Senate Bill 130 both stalled in the final days of the legislature.
Another bill backed by Hunt’s office would’ve required law enforcement to collect DNA samples from individuals facing felony charges. Under Senate Bill 150, suspects would have their cheek swabbed when they are booked and fingerprinted. The DNA information could then be checked against other samples in a federal law enforcement database.
“What other states have found is that it’s a huge way to prevent other crimes [and] to solve old cases, and rape cases in particular,” Hunt says. “It’s such a crime prevention tool.”
But some lawmakers feared the legislation violated the privacy of individuals who had not yet been convicted of a crime. Hunt says the bill included a provision to have the individual’s DNA information expunged if the charges were ultimately dismissed or downgraded to a misdemeanor. She says SB 150 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but failed to get a hearing by the full chamber.