Ending the rape kit backlog

After it was reported early last year that as many as 6,000 sexual assault kits, also known as “rape kits,” were backlogged at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, the Legislature responded with $2.75 million in funding to hire more lab staff and with a mandate that all local law enforcement agencies in the state submit the kits within 30 days of receiving them.

But the funding was only half of what the State Patrol had requested, and the requirement to submit rape kits added to the backlog. In December the Associated Press reported that the State Patrol was dealing with an 86 percent increase in rape kits at all five of the state’s DNA labs.

The Legislature has returned to the issue this year with legislation that would fund testing of the kits by requiring operators of sexually oriented live adult entertainment establishments to charge a $4 fee for each patron who visits. Half of the money raised would go toward the cost of testing the kits, with the remaining money used by the state Office of Crime Victims Advocacy to support programs for victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking.

Additionally, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs would be required to administer a five-year grant program for local law enforcement agencies to reinvestigate cases where a sexual assault kit was in an agency’s possession but had not been submitted for testing as of July 24, 2015.

Importantly, the legislation, House Bill 2530, would require WASPC to create and operate a statewide system to track the sexual assault kits from investigation to DNA testing and results. Unfortunately, the legislation as written would exempt all information from the tracking system from release to media and the public under the state’s Public Records Act.

It was attention from the media and from organizations such as EndTheBacklog.org, that brought attention to the stockpiling of untested rape kits in the first case. To allow information about the time and costs expended in processing the kits to be bottled up could silence the watchdog that first alerted the public to the problem.

Concerns about victims’ privacy are understandable but are minimal related to the information that would be sought and can be easily addressed. Likely, the kits would be tracked by a code affixed to the kit. Any identifying information is already sealed and exempt from release under the Public Records Act.

What open government advocates — and likely victims’ advocates, too — are after is transparency of the tracking system, information about how long it takes to process the kits and where they might be experiencing a bottleneck, either at a specific law enforcement agency or a state DNA lab.

Information would not need to be released about the date the sexual assault kit was administered at a hospital, as that could be used in rare circumstances to identify a victim. Only the transit time is key here. For agencies that process only a handful of cases in a year, the frequency of their reports could be limited to prevent the chance of identification based on the approximate date of a report of sexual assault.

The proposed legislation, which is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Committee on Law and Justice on Thursday morning, makes important advances that could finally reduce the backlog of sexual assault kits and also provide more services to the victims of sexual assault and trafficking.

But the ability for the public to keep an eye on that system’s progress also needs to be protected.

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