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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Timely testing of evidence critical for justice

The Columbian
Published: October 28, 2023, 6:03am

As far back as 2018, The Columbian urged state officials to clear a daunting backlog of sexual assault evidence kits.

“Victims of sexual assault deserve nothing less,” we wrote. “Recovery from the crime depends upon assurance that authorities are aggressively pursuing the case. After victims are raped and then subjected to an intrusive hospital examination, allowing kits to languish essentially amounts to another violation.”

With the state launching a series of measures to address the issue, we added: “Each of these steps is essential to reducing and prosecuting a crime that is particularly heinous and can leave emotional scars as damaging as the physical assault. Providing assurance that assaults will be taken seriously not only will help to prosecute offenders but will embolden victims to step forward.”

Five years later, it is laudable that Washington has effectively cleared its backlog of unprocessed rape kits. Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced this week that 99 percent of kits have been processed and the others are being examined. As Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, said at a news conference: “Each of those kits was a survivor whose voice was never heard, who never had a pathway to justice. And we’re here to close that chapter.”

More important, Ferguson said his office is aware of convictions in 20 cases related to newly tested kits and of DNA matches in approximately 2,000 cases. Clearing the backlog would be pointless without effective follow-up from investigators and prosecutors.

Washington is not the only state in which attention from advocacy groups has made a difference. Too often in all regions of the country, victims have been subjected to invasive examinations only to have important evidence languish in labs and law-enforcement storage rooms.

In 2015, the Legislature provided funding for the testing of kits waiting to be processed. In 2018, lawmakers approved $1.5 million over three years for the Washington State Patrol to hire additional forensic scientists to help with processing, and Ferguson’s office secured $3 million from a national grant. Other measures also played a role: The State Patrol developed a website allowing victims to track the progress of their kits, and Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill designed to increase the number of nurses trained in treating sexual assault victims and collecting crucial evidence.

Meanwhile, a high-volume lab in Vancouver played a role in reducing the backlog. Officials credited a boost in testing capacity and the lab’s increased staffing and efficient processes.

The fact that the backlog has been cleared is a victory for the public. Officials saw a need to right an egregious wrong, developed processes for doing so, and then followed through.

But continued diligence is equally important. Among the efforts to address the issue, Washington law now requires new kits to be tested within 45 days; officials say the state lab receives approximately 120 new kits each month.

Timely testing of evidence not only is important for providing justice to victims, but to preventing future crimes. Information is automatically uploaded into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index system, which helps link evidence pertaining to all types of crime – not only rape – among the 50 states. The Washington State Patrol’s Crime Lab last week announced a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to enhance its testing capacity.

As Chris Loftis of the Washington State Patrol surmised: “The indignities of the delays of the past will never be repeated again.”