With only a few days left in this year’s legislative session, the General Assembly has finished much of its business. Republicans have defeated commonsense proposals to raise the minimum wage, close the health care coverage gap, and my bill to keep guns away from toddlers. Negotiators from the House and Senate are inching closer to a final budget deal. Governor McAuliffe has already begun signing some bills into law.
Even so, a handful of high-profile issues have yet to be resolved. Notably, we are still working towards a final compromise on how best to prevent and respond to sexual assaults at our colleges and universities. In both the House and Senate, multiple pieces of legislation were introduced to address this critical issue; those bills were eventually rolled into two vehicles. As of this writing, those remaining bills — SB712 and HB1930 — differ slightly, but the basic outlines are very similar.
Both bills strike a careful balance between protecting the rights and privacy of victims and keeping college communities as safe as possible. Each proposal would require colleges to establish memorandums of understanding with local victim support services, ensuring that students who have been assaulted are aware of and able to access resources to help them. Both bills require university employees who become aware of a sexual assault to report it to their school’s Title IX coordinator. Each bill establishes review teams to promptly assess the cases that are brought to that coordinator. Based on those proceedings, each bill provides for team members to determine whether to release identifying information about the victim and begin a law enforcement investigation.
It’s important to me that the final legislation explicitly protects victims’ anonymity during assessments, and leaves post-assessment decisions about how to proceed in the hands of the Title IX coordinator. (These have been points of dispute between the House and Senate.) In any event, we need to make our students safer and prevent future tragedies.
Passing a compromise measure, however, will not mean our work is done. As we strive to prevent future crimes, we must also seek justice for those who have already been hurt.
Last year I co-sponsored SB658, a bipartisan bill that required state and local law enforcement to inventory the untested physical evidence recovery kits (PERKs) in their possession — that is, the kits used to collect and preserve physical evidence following a rape or sexual assault.
The findings were troubling. Virginia has a backlog of at least 2,279 unanalyzed PERKs — and I expect the final total to be above 4,000. Evidence from these kits is often the key to putting rapists behind bars. If we’re truly going to crack down on sexual violence, it’s not enough to pass new protections. We also have to ensure that existing laws are working as they should. That means giving our Department of Forensic Services the resources it needs to work through this substantial backlog.
In 2014, I carried a successful budget amendment to do exactly that. My proposal provided $600,000 over two years so the Commonwealth could hire new forensic scientists to work through these untested PERKs.
The original budget as introduced would have sharply reduced that funding. I have worked to protect it, and the budget put forward by the Senate Finance Committee restores much of the money the Department of Forensic Science was slated to lose. I have every hope that the final budget — the compromise to which both the House and Senate will eventually agree — will do the same.
The legislature this year meets for just 46 days. That isn’t enough time to solve all the problems we face — especially in the face of partisan gridlock on so many critical issues. Still, I take heart in knowing that on this issue, at least, Democrats and Republicans have been able to come together to do what’s necessary and right. It’s a path I hope my colleagues will follow on many, many other issues when we reconvene next year.
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It is my continued honor to represent the citizens of the 30th Senate District.