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State lawmakers seek stronger response to sexual assault


A group of state lawmakers wants to strengthen the state’s response to incidents of sexual assault.

A proposal in the state Senate would re-establish a statewide sexual assault response program that lost its funding. The proposal also would add new steps to the assault-response process.

The Senate Committee on Ways and Means passed a bill to tackle that plan on Wednesday.

Hawaii was a leader when it established its system for responding to sexual assault, but the long-standing program recently lost its federal funding, said Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, a co-author of the bill.

"The funding hasn’t been there to provide all of the services," Chun Oakland said. "I think if we’re wanting to have strong and responsive supportive services for people who have been sexually assaulted, you should have it in the base budget."

The bill originally called for new response teams to be established in every county, but it was amended following advice from the attorney general, said Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the committee. Tokuda said the amended proposal would include funding for the program, although the exact amount was unclear at the legislative hearing.

The proposal lays out guidelines for testing DNA evidence collected by health care providers, and it sets timeframes for processing the DNA. Health care providers would have to turn over evidence to authorities within 72 hours of getting written consent, and then the Department of the Attorney General would have to submit the evidence to the next party within 14 days. Then there would be a 90-day deadline to analyze the evidence.

The bill also would mandate including the DNA evidence in a state database.

The Honolulu Police Department supported the intent of the bill, but it was concerned about the cost, according to its written testimony. The Department of the Prosecuting Attorney from Maui County opposed the bill, saying that requiring testing of every "rape kit" goes too far.

Violence against women is the most important concern for the members of the American Association of University Women in Hawaii, said Susan Wurtzburg, policy director for the group, which has 400 members. Wurtzburg, in written testimony supporting the bill, said she has taught undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa for five years, and she described "disturbing levels of sexual violence occurring on the state’s university flagship campus."

"This bill underscores the importance of a statewide sexual-assault response system, which is fundamental for helping rape victims to make an informed decision about prosecution and to change their status to violence survivors, rather than remaining traumatized," Wurtzburg said.

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