With the failure of Senate Bill 7 in the 2017 state legislative session, New Mexico missed an opportunity to make a dent in the backlog of untested sexual assault kits and still faces an uphill climb in solving its poor national standing in sexual violence rankings.
“New Mexico may be lacking the political will to address the issue,” said Jim Harvey, Executive Director of the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico. “It is unfortunate that SB 7 failed, but it demonstrates how the lack of sensitivity to victims of sexual assault continues to live among our lawmakers.”
Every 98-seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, according to statistics by RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. While the national picture has improved — sexual violence cases have fallen by more than half from 1993 to 2014 — sex abuse is still a pervasive problem with some 321,500 victims each year. The state of New Mexico was ranked 4th nationally by the FBI on its list of states with the highest levels of forcible rape occurrences.
Valerie Sanchez has directed crisis services at the Central New Mexico Rape Crisis Center for the last three years, and before that she was a victims advocate for seven years. She says New Mexico lacks adequate crime lab capacity in the state to test the evidence kits (known as rape kits) that are gathered for DNA evidence following a rape. Sanchez says even if funding had been approved by the legislature, new kits would still take a long time to process.
“The challenge is that they have to catch up. There is still a long time before they start testing the new ones. So there is still going to be a time period which might set up a false expectation,” Sanchez said.
As a result, says Sanchez, some victims are actually deterred from reporting a rape because they don’t know if their kit will be tested in a timely fashion.
“The number of untested rape kits per capita in New Mexico surpasses all other states in the nation.”
Currently there are 254 untested rape kits for every 100,000 New Mexico residents, according to a special report done by the New Mexico State Auditor. The number of untested rape kits per capita in New Mexico surpasses all other states in the nation. The next two highest states include Michigan with 153 and Tennessee with 137 for every 100,000 residents.
“The backlog still exists and people are entitled to justice which often depends on forensics,” said Harvey, “The inability to process rape kits or any other information that would be processed in our labs is not only problematic but it is unjust.”
Harvey said that to improve the sexual violence issue in New Mexico the state needs to generate funding for public safety departments, for survivor programs and for organizations that educate the public.
Harvey’s Rape Crisis Center of Central NM does much of that. It helps sexual violence survivors from Bernalillo, Torrance, Cibola, Valencia and Sandoval counties. The nonprofit also provides help to the surrounding tribal areas.
The crisis center provides two types of training. One is for professionals in school and businesses, to implement measures to reduce sexual assault in a professional environment. The other training prepares individuals to work or volunteer as an advocate.
On average, the Rape Crisis Center’s 24-hour hotline receives approximately 2,000 calls per year and staff see some 600 people at area hospitals. The Community Education and Outreach department contacts, on average 13,000 community members per year, Harvey said.