Thursday, March 30, 2023
March 30, 2023

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In Our View: Testing Rape Kits a Priority

State has been making progress, but issue needs more money, attention

The Columbian

Rape victims deserve to know their cases are being vigorously pursued and that justice is a priority for the state. Yet more than 6,000 rape evidence kits in Washington remain untested, some of them having languished for years on police evidence shelves.

Believe it or not, that represents progress for the state, which three years ago had about 10,000 untested kits — but more needs to be done. Fully addressing the issue will require diligence from state leaders and funding from the Legislature. In addition to possibly providing closure for victims, reducing the backlog of evidence can help prevent future crimes by identifying perpetrators who might still be out there.

Washington is not alone in its need to address a backlog of rape kits. According to End the Backlog, a national advocacy group that has been effective in drawing attention to the issue, California has more than 13,000 untested rape kits. Just last week, Oregon announced that it had finished testing old kits, clearing an inventory that was about 5,500 three years ago.

Washington is making progress, in part thanks to a national grant, but the inevitable addition of new kits from recent crimes leaves lab technicians fighting an uphill battle. Current evidence takes between eight months and 12 months to process, while national best practices call for a maximum of a two-month wait.

That kind of delay is unconscionable. Imagine being a victim — or knowing a victim — who is waiting up to a year just for DNA evidence to be processed before an in-depth investigation can begin. The benefit of having such evidence available was highlighted last week in Portland with a conviction for a crime from 1996. The evidence kit from that case languished for more than two decades; once it was tested, identification and prosecution was relatively quick.

In Washington, the State Patrol recently won more than $2 million in federal grants to buy new equipment and improve work spaces at its Vancouver lab. The Legislature now must provide additional funding for the hiring of scientists and for the processing of old kits, which are sent to a private lab. Once a kit is tested, results are entered into a national database.

The state also now has a fully operational system for tracking evidence kits. “We can track where it came from, who has it, what’s being done with it,” Larry Herbert, director of the State Patrol’s forensic lab, told KIRO Radio in Seattle. “Is it finished? Is it back in the police property room?” The tracking information is available to medical staff, law enforcement, prosecutors, and even sexual assault victims.

Allowing victims to follow the progress is essential for their peace of mind. The sense that the crime is being taken seriously can temper feelings of isolation that often follow a sexual assault. As State Patrol Capt. Monica Alexander said, “That was the difficult part for a lot of the survivors, is that they had no idea.”

Washington’s crime labs plan to ask Gov. Jay Inslee to include $3 million for upgrades in his biennial budget proposal, and Herbert said, “What we’re hoping is we can process the kits about twice as fast as we can now.” That would be a worthy investment for the benefit of victims and the public.

The good news is that Washington officials have been addressing the need to quickly test evidence kits in rape cases. The bad news is that much work remains to be done.