Washington State Capitol Building. Photo by Emma Epperly/WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Washington State Capitol Building. Photo by Emma Epperly/WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Legislation targets rape kit backlog

WA has about 10,000 untested kits; new law would reduce testing time to 45 days

OLYMPIA — A bill to reduce the processing time for sexual assault kits has passed the Washington Legislature in two unanimous votes.

Sexual assault kits have remained untested for over a decade in Washington. The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab can currently test only 213 kits per month, with a backlog of around 10,000 kits.

Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, is the sponsor of this legislation and has worked on the issue throughout her time in the Legislature. Orwall testified on the five serial rapists who have been identified since the process of ending the rape kit backlog began in 2015.

“We’re trying to make sure that we are having a strong survivor driven system,” Orwall said of the rape kit tracking system.

This bill is intended to be “the fix” for speeding up testing and reducing the sexual assault kit backlog, said Orwall.

The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab could hire around 10 new employees to increase testing capacity, which is included in proposed budgets along with a new high throughput lab being created.

House Bill 1166 requires the sexual assault kit backlog be eliminated by December 2021. Beginning in May 2022, all testing must be completed within 45 days of receipt. The bill outlines victims’ rights, which include medical forensic examination at no cost, assistance from a sexual assault survivors advocate during medical examination and interviews, and a free copy of the police report, among other rights.

The legislation also alters the function of the Joint Legislative Task Force on Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Best Practices. The task force was created in 2015 to review best practice models for managing sexual assault examinations and the rape kit backlog.

This legislation extends the task force and renames it the SAFE advisory group and will add a sexual assault nurse examiner to the group, along with removing certain representatives. The group’s duties will expand to include developing recommendations for sexual assault kits that are collected when no crime has been reported; monitoring changes made to state and federal laws; working with various agencies on federal grant requirements; and recommending institutional criminal justice reforms.

Individuals can have a sexual assault kit done without reporting a crime and decide later if they would like to report the crime and get the kit tested. However, there currently are not standard regulations for how long the kit is held, where it’s held, or in what manner. The advisory group would develop regulations to standardize the storage of unreported kits.

Members of the SAFE task force testified throughout the legislative process in support of the bill. Nicole Stevens, one of the survivor representatives on the task force, said “every piece of this is absolutely required in order to right the 10,000 wrongs that the state has done.”

Eliminating the backlog would remove a chilling factor in reporting sexual assault and getting forensic testing done, Stevens said.

Clearing the backlog is a priority for the Attorney General’s Office, which would also receive additional funding for investigating the crimes after testing is completed.

“We can’t really put a price tag on justice, especially in cases of sexual assault,” said Brittany Gregory from the Attorney General’s Office.

The House of Representatives passed the bill March 6 in a unanimous vote. The Senate unanimously passed it on Thursday. The bill now heads to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk, who is expected to sign it into law.

Emma Epperly is an intern with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau

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