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Opinion

Fri., Dec. 30, 2016

Expand rape-kit testing

An Idaho audit on the handling of rape kits reveals that lawmakers should follow Washington state’s new law.

The audit showed that law enforcement declined to forward nearly half the kits to labs for testing. Officials say one of the reasons is the belief that no crime was committed. Under a law passed last spring, the state must conduct an annual audit on the handling of rape kits. And in another change, law enforcement agencies now need the consent of a county prosecutor before declining to send in a kit.

But the experiences of other states show that it is beneficial to test all kits. Doing so has helped authorities nab serial rapists – some of whom claimed “consensual sex” – and exonerate the innocent.

Ground-breaking sexual-assault research conducted by Michigan State University psychology professor Rebecca Campbell has shown the flaw in letting law enforcement decide which kits should be tested. The U.S. Justice Department awarded her a Vision 21 Research Award for changing the way sexual assault victims are treated. She was put in charge of a National Institute of Justice project to find out why so few rape kits were being tested in Detroit. Chronic understaffing was one reason, and the lack of resources has caused a huge backlog across the country.

But another reason, according to the NIJ report, was law enforcement personnel “regularly expressing negative, stereotyping beliefs about sexual assault victims.” Too often, police would use assumptions about victims to weed out rape claims and then decline to send kits in for testing.

As a result of the federal report, Detroit and Wayne County transformed how it dealt with sexual assault cases. And these changes are serving as a model for the rest of the country.

In 2015, the Washington Legislature passed a law calling for all rape kits to be tested. After testing, DNA profiles are entered into a national FBI database, which helps nab serial rapists. Last spring, Washington state lawmakers passed the nation’s first law calling for the mandatory bar-code tracking of all rape kits.

For victims, the process of collecting physical evidence after a traumatic assault is unpleasant, at best. But when rape kits aren’t tested, it undermines faith in the justice system. With tracking, victims can find out the status of their kits and be assured their cases are being taken seriously.

The Idaho Legislature took two important steps last session: taking sole discretion on testing away from law enforcement agencies (there were wide disparities) and ordering annual audits. Now that the audit has shown that nearly half of the kits weren’t submitted to labs, lawmakers should take the next step and order them all to be tested.

This will, of course, mean more money for labs and workers. With about $3.5 million in federal and state money, the Washington State Patrol has hired seven new forensic scientists, according to the Seattle Times.

Whittling down rape-kit backlogs will take time, but it should be an important law enforcement priority.



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