Expert witness fund for rape prosecutions slashed in Senate budget

03/24/2016 12:02 PM

UPDATED — Millions of dollars set aside to help rape survivors find justice in the court system has been removed from the House version of the budget by Senate Republicans.

Inside the House version of the $21 billion state sending plan was an additional $3.6 million set aside to support fees in the prosecutions of cases tied to the backlog of untested rape kits still awaiting testing in Kentucky, but that money is now been spent in other places in the Senate budget.

The House had earmarked settlement funds from Johnson & Johnson regarding the schizophrenia drug Risperdal. A $17.5 million settlement decided in late December of 2015 for the funds.

That House version of the budget stipulates that current Attorney General Andy Beshear, after the payment of attorney’s fees and expenses, will transfer $3.6 million of the settlement funds to establish a “Justice for Rape Victims Fund” in the Prosecutor’s Advisory Council. The funds would be used to support fees for expert witnesses and other costs associated with cases and future prosecutions in rape, the House budget says.

It will also be used to “increased victim advocacy on rape kit backlogged cases, development of model protocol on sexual assault cases, and enhanced training and resources for prosecutors and victim advocates in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault in the Office of Victims Advocacy in the Office of the Attorney General.”

The Senate also used Johnson & Johnson settlement funds, but instead of spending the money on prosecutions they’ve earmarked the dollars to send the $4.5 million in funding provided to the Kentucky State Police to add staff, equipment and chemicals to ensure victims have their evidence processed.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and House Democrats also funded the state police request using $4.5 million transferred from the Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation Program Fund in order to increase personnel and equipment with crime lab. The expert witness prosecution funds represent the gap in between testing kits and trying cases.

Senate Budget Chair Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, said the dollars the Senate earmarked what agencies had initially asked for in the budgeting process.

“We fully funded the request from the auditor’s office and the state police for these rape testing kits,” McDaniel said in a phone interview. “We believe there is money in the House’s budget and ours to accommodate the actual court side of this, but if somebody thinks differently we’re open to that in conference.”

Prosecutors that Pure Politics spoke with said the dollars for prosecution is badly needed when the still untested sexual assault forensic kits come back to the state from testing.

The Kentucky State Police has yet to awarded a contract for the testing of up to 3,300 previously untested rape kits in the commonwealth. The contract is being bid on by two out of state vendors, which makes prosecutors like Kenton Co. Commonwealth Attorney Rob Sanders nervous because of increased costs to establish a chain of custody of the kits.

Sanders said on average fees for out-of-state analysts are $2,000 to $5,000 per witness, which would include witness fees and travel costs.

While Sanders said he expected the budget to be “altered significantly” in the budget process he said it wasn’t wise to count on any funding yet.

“We still have work to do in terms of making sure that we’re able to seek the process of obtaining justice for rape victims from testing all the way through jury conviction, and that’s going to require funding the expert witnesses,” he said. “While it will obviously warrant explanation to both chambers of the legislature I’m confident that everyone in both Houses and on both sides of the aisle are behind this rape kit initiative.”

Attorney General Andy Beshear said his office announced the $17.5 million in settlement funds to help Kentucky families in the current budget.

“In the House’s budget proposal, a portion of this money was used to create the ‘Justice For Rape Victims Fund,’” Beshear said. “This fund would ensure law enforcement and prosecutors would move swiftly in seeking justice for victims.

“I’m disappointed that the Senate did not share the House’s commitment to justice in its version,” Beshear continued. “I’m hopeful that the fund will be fully appropriated in the final budget. Regardless, my office will continue to seek justice for victims who have waited far too long.”

The funding fight follows a Pure Politics investigation into the thousands of untested rape kits still waiting testing in the commonwealth.

The Senate’s budget bill also requires eight of the 13 rape crisis centers to increase contributions to the retirement system, something they say will cost jobs resulting in a loss in services. In some of the regional programs this will mean there is one specially trained therapist for an entire region.

According to Sherry Currens, Executive Director of the KY Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Kentucky’s domestic violence programs also do not have adequate funds to support the staff required to provide needed victim services and maintain a safe shelter environment for nine of their 15 shelters under the Senate’s budget.

“One of our gravest concerns is that the majority of our programs are already operating nights and weekends with only one staff in shelter to respond to residents’ needs, answer crisis calls, do intakes for new residents and handle any and all emergencies. This additional loss in funding will compound that problem,” Currens said.

About Nick Storm

Nick Storm is the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics, the only nightly program dedicated to Kentucky politics. Nick covers all of the political heavyweights and his investigative work brings to light issues that might otherwise go unnoticed, like the connection between the high profile Steubenville, Ohio rape and a Kentucky hacker whose push for further investigation could put him in federal prison. Nick is also working on a feature length bio documentary Outlaw Poet: A documentary on Ron Whitehead. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickStorm_cn2. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or nicholas.storm@twcnews.com.

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