New system highlights progress, more needed to clear rape kit backlog

SEATTLE — Massive backlogs of untested rape kits – some decades old — have been an ongoing issue in Washington and across the country for years now.

Many states have taken some action to clear their own backlogs, but progress has been slow thanks to a lack of funding, older equipment, shortage of staff, and the length of time it takes to turn around the tests.

On top of making rape survivors feel like what happened to them doesn't matter, the untested kits are also a public safety risk, allowing potential serial rapists to remain on the streets and attack others while kits that could have sent them to prison collect dust on evidence shelves.

A few weeks ago, Washington state got its own tracking system up and running, so rape victims can track their rape kits through the entire process, starting at the hospital where the kits are performed.

Last month, with the help of a $3 million federal grant, Attorney General Bob Ferguson's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative team was able to finally get an accurate count of untested old kits by completing a statewide inventory.

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"We did this inventory, and the result that we heard back from local law enforcement agencies is that we have more than 6,000 of these kits that have not been sent in to be tested," Ferguson said.

The inventory found 6,460 untested kits still sitting in various evidence lock-ups, the oldest from 1982. That doesn't include the roughly 3,300 old kits that were submitted for testing, of which more than 1,100 are still waiting to be tested.

"What we're finding is when these kits do get submitted and are tested, that a significant percentage of them end with a match to a national law enforcement database of convicted felons," Ferguson noted.

"So on so many levels, it's critical that we get these kits submitted for testing and also to get the state to test them at a more efficient rate," he added.

Of the old kits that have been tested, more than 200 came back with hits – or matches in the FBI's criminal DNA database — that connect to another crime, some linked to cold cases. Others were linked to suspects who had committed a second offense during the time the kit went untested.

Ferguson's team received a quarter of the grant money to do the inventory, and will request the remainder in January to cover of the cost of tests on roughly a third of the old kits.

"We need more funds from the state Legislature, and my office will very possibly apply for another grant once we've completed this work, because this will be a multi-year process to get this backlog processed, submitted, and tested," Ferguson said.

A system making serious progress
Other states have already pulled it off too.

Just last month, Oregon cleared its backlog of about 5,000 rape kits, and Kentucky had already cleared its entire backlog. Ohio's backlog of nearly 14,000 untested kits was also cleared this year with the help of new technology, robots, and efficiencies at their lab – known as a high-throughput lab – which dramatically cuts down on the turnaround time for testing.

Reducing the turnaround for testing is essential for Washington state labs, which, in addition to the old tests still on shelves, is also dealing with a growing backlog of new rape kits. This is largely due to the sheer volume of kits flowing in after a 2015 law mandating all new kits be submitted for testing, as well as older equipment and staffing shortages.

Democratic state Representative Tina Orwall – who heads a legislative sexual assault kit task force and has spearheaded efforts to clear Washington's backlog – says that with the inventory and tracking system done, her focus is now on turnaround time for testing.

"We really need to have clear goals around when all the older kits will be tested, as well as how rapidly we'll be testing new kits. Right now it's taking eight months to a year for when a new sexual assault kit comes in, and we know that's just too long. That's too long for the survivor to wait, that's too long to have a potentially very dangerous offender in our communities," Orwall said.

She's putting final touches on a comprehensive bill that that will establish timelines for testing old kits and new ones. This will help the state understand what resources it needs to meet that timeline, and to follow Ohio's lead in getting a high-throughput lab, where turnaround time for testing kits is averages around 25 days.

The State Patrol is already on it, asking for about $6 million over the next two years in their budget request for equipment and staffing needed to turn the Vancouver, Washington lab into a high-throughput lab akin to Ohio's. The goal from there is to eventually get the kit-testing turnaround time down to just 30 days.

In their budget ask, the WSP crime lab says it's crucial they get what their asking for not just to deal with the rape kit backlog, but also the new backlog being created for DNA testing in other violent crimes, which they say jeopardizes criminal cases and puts public safety at risk.

Activists are also keeping the pressure on.

Coming up on Dec. 9, the Washington State Rape Kit Reform Campaign and Unite Against Rape are teaming up to raise awareness and money for testing backlogged rape kits, with a documentary watch-party and discussion on Capitol Hill.

Following the screening of the documentary "I Am Evidence," there will also be a panel discussion with Rep. Orwall, investigators from the AG's office and others. The event is free if you pre-register.

On this Giving Tuesday, Unite Against Rape is encouraging people to donate to help end the backlog of more than 200,000 untested rape kits nationwide.