OLYMPIA – Lawmakers are considering ways to clear a statewide backlog of nearly 6,000 untested rape kits containing DNA evidence that could put repeat sexual offenders behind bars or exonerate people who were wrongly convicted.
Local law enforcement agencies typically send those kits to one of several crime labs run by the Washington State Patrol, where scientists can extract DNA from skin, hair and bodily fluids found on a victim’s body. But those labs are overwhelmed, so local agencies must prioritize the evidence they send in for testing.
“We are remarkably short-staffed,” said Bob Calkins, a spokesman for the WSP. “If they know a case is going to take a long time, why clutter the system?”
The federal government estimates there are about 400,000 untested rape kits in the United States. In Washington, there are at least 5,881, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which recently conducted a survey covering three-quarters of the state’s population.
The Spokane Police Department reported 213 untested kits, and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office reported 80. The Seattle Police Department reported 1,600.
“There are valid reasons not to submit rape kits,” said James McMahan, WASPC’s policy director. “But there are also invalid reasons.”
McMahan said kits sometimes go untested when an alleged victim doesn’t cooperate, or when law enforcement officers already have a suspect or determine no crime was committed. But that doesn’t explain why there are so many, he said.
The state House of Representatives wants to spend about $2.75 million for staff and equipment at the crime labs. It approved legislation last month that would require local agencies to send their kits to a lab within 30 days of receiving them. Currently, no deadline is set.
The bill also would create a task force to address the backlogged kits, some of which date back to the 1980s. On Monday, it got a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee and could come to a full floor vote in the next few weeks.
Congress took similar steps last month, approving $41 million in federal grants for law enforcement agencies. Another $20 million was proposed for addressing the old kits.
Calkins said the WSP would need at least 13 new employees to handle all the rape kits, but the task could be greater than that.
“Part of the problem is that we don’t even know how many freezers to buy” to store them, he said.
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