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Twice violated 

Thanks to a federal consent decree designed to improve police practices, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has virtually eliminated its backlog of untested sexual assault DNA collection kits. NOPD accomplished this by submitting the data to the FBI's nationwide database. The Louisiana State Police completed a similarly massive undertaking by reducing its backlog in 2008, submitting more than 30,000 statewide DNA samples to the database. These steps represent important milestones for both agencies, but much more remains to be done to give rape victims confidence that the government is doing all it can to prosecute sex crimes.

  In June, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law a bill that sets a hard deadline of Jan. 1, 2015, to make all criminal justice agencies in Louisiana complete an inventory of their untested sexual assault DNA collection kits — commonly known as rape kits — and send them to the Louisiana State Police crime lab. The bill, by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, also aims to give lawmakers a full picture of the state's rape kit backlog by the start of the 2015 legislative session. Morrell's bill should hold criminal justice agencies accountable for a longstanding failure to process evidence that could not only put offenders away with hard evidence but also save thousands of lives.

  But what is Louisiana telling rape victims who receive large hospital bills after that crucial evidence is collected?

  The Times-Picayune's Rebecca Catalanello reported last month that rape victims in Louisiana often get massive hospital bills after they report their attacks and submit to extensive forensic exams. That happens, despite the Louisiana Crime Victim Reparations Fund's potential to offer relief to those victims. The newspaper's lengthy story noted that many victims are billed thousands of dollars for items directly related to the battery of forensic tests commonly performed on sexual assault victims. The costs often include emergency room admissions, HIV tests and other fees.

  Federal law requires that certain tests, which are part of a standard rape kit, cannot be billed to sexual assault victims, but a number of other commonly administered tests — including examinations for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases — are not covered by the law. These and other forensic tests easily can cost more than $2,000, according to the T-P story, and sometimes the bills arrive too late for victims to submit them to their health insurance providers. Moreover, the application process for reimbursement from victim reparation funds can take more than a month, with reimbursements (if they are awarded) taking a year or more.

Making rape victims pay, literally, for the crimes of their attackers seems barbaric.

  More than one victim told the newspaper that getting a large hospital bill after trying to help cops gather evidence against a rapist makes them feel violated all over again.

  Louisiana is one of a handful of states that puts the cost of rape kit data collection on local parishes. Unfortunately, under federal and state law, many related tests are not considered part of the evidence collection process, even though Louisiana has a law making it a crime to knowingly expose someone to HIV. Sexual assaults already rank among the least reported crimes. Making rape victims pay, literally, for the crimes of their attackers seems barbaric, and it can only compound the problem of underreporting.

  The T-P's Catalanello reported that Interim LSU Hospital in New Orleans only began billing sexual assault victims for ancillary tests after Jindal and state lawmakers privatized Louisiana's public hospitals. Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates told Gambit that the problem actually predates the governor's privatization initiative because the state has never had a uniform, consistent policy on the question of who pays for rape victims' related forensic exams. Bates said the problem has existed outside Orleans Parish for many years at both public and private hospitals, and she added that Jindal and lawmakers are already working to develop a uniform statewide policy for underwriting DNA collection and other forms of evidence gathering in sexual assault cases.

  Last month, the Joyful Heart Foundation — a national organization that helps victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse — once again challenged the federal government to allocate money for local criminal justice organizations to eliminate rape kit backlogs. As police nationwide began to enter information from backlogged kits, hundreds of serial rapists were identified and dozens of investigations were opened or reopened. Expanding the scope of forensic examinations covered by public funds and establishing a consistent statewide policy to pay for them will help solve sexual assault cases — and give victims reason to trust that they will not be violated by the system that's supposed to help them.

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