State Politics

Idaho State Police lab hopes to test most backlogged rape kits by the end of 2019

A forensic DNA scientist works in ISP’s Forensic Services lab.
A forensic DNA scientist works in ISP’s Forensic Services lab.

A recently released report shows that Idaho authorities are slowly making a dent in the number of backlogged, previously untested sexual assault kits that have been sitting on evidence shelves.

The 2018 sexual assault kit tracking report released by Idaho State Police Forensic Services shows that the state performed 473 rape kit exams last year, and the lab saw 620 kits submitted for testing. That means police submitted nearly 150 old kits.

Those 150 kits likely were discovered when new laws went into place after a statewide audit in 2016. Prior to 2016, law enforcement agencies were not required to turn the kits into the lab for testing for a variety of reasons. Since then, legislation has passed that regulates submissions and tracking. Police are required to submit a kit unless a victim specifically requests otherwise or law enforcement determines that no crime has been committed.

If a detective believes there was no crime, then a prosecutor must sign off on the decision not to test the kit. That’s a new requirement by legislators that has increased the number of submissions from law enforcement. It was intended to hold authorities accountable for their decisions about victims, but the new report states it can cause a delay in the kits being sent to the lab.

“At the end of 2018, there were kits that have been waiting for prosecutor review for almost a year. This does a disservice to the law enforcement agency as the time the prosecutor’s office takes to review cases counts against their submission averages,” according to the new report. “It can also cause a potential delay in justice for the sexual assault survivor.”

The report states that an initiative to test all rape kits, rather than only some, “would almost eliminate this issue in its entirety, as the requirements for testing submission would be clearly defined.”

The original legislation, headed by Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, has offered some hope to victims and advocates, and has resulted in a system created for tracking kits. It also set standards for how long police must keep a rape kit before destroying the evidence.

Matthew Gammette, ISP’s director of forensic services, explained that nationally, about half of the kits tested in labs have enough usable DNA to be entered into a national database that law enforcement uses to see whether a suspect’s DNA matches the DNA found on a sexual assault victim or at a crime scene.

The report from ISP’s lab states that it entered 210 DNA entries into the database in 2018. The lab got 32 hits, meaning a match to a profile that’s already in the database.

Gammette said the increase in rape kit submissions to the Meridian lab has created a lot of work. At the end of 2018, 346 kits had been in the lab longer than 90 days, and the oldest kit had been in the lab for 495 days.

“It’s created a backlog now, but we will work through all of the previously unsubmitted kits by the end of 2019,” Gammette said.

Once the old kits are tested, he believes the lab will be able to manage the new-case workload.

“The overall turnaround time is more than what we want right now,” Gammette said. “The goal is to get back to the 30-day turnaround.”

The lab has the necessary equipment, but keeping personnel at the level needed is key, he said. One scientist can handle about 10 to 12 sexual assault cases a month.

He said the lab is working to prioritize what cases are most important for public safety, meeting court dates and avoiding risk to victims.

Submission time

The speed at which a kit is submitted to the lab for testing varies based upon which law enforcement agency collected it. On average, it took law enforcement 37 days to submit kits to the lab, according to the 2018 report. But the time varied greatly among individual agencies.

The Boise Police Department, for example, took an average of just 10 days to turn over a kit to the lab, while the Bear Lake County Sheriff’s Office took 111 days to bring its one kit to the lab in 2018. The kits must follow a chain of custody and be delivered by the agencies themselves.

Idaho State Police, through its policy advisory group called Idaho Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (ISAKI), has put out guidelines regarding sexual assault response that offers best practices for police forces, prosecutors and advocates. The guidelines are not a result of legislation.

Recommendations cover everything from communication to understanding trauma and behavior.

“Due to the particularly intimate and intrusive nature of sexual assault, the interview process may be difficult both for the victim and the officer,” the guidelines note when offering recommendations to police.

The guidelines recommend that prosecutors meet with victims prior to making a determination about whether or not to charge the suspect. This offers “increased insight not available through written reports,” the guidelines state.

It also outlines recommendations for treating inmates who have been sexually assaulted and working with juveniles who have been victimized, among a variety of other sensitive subjects.

Because the guidelines were not mandated by legislation, there is no enforcement mechanism. The policy advisory group cannot make prosecutors or police comply.

Still, Gammette said he is hopeful that those involved follow them.

“We are really trying to make sure the culture is healthy” when talking about victims, Gammette said.

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Reporter Ruth Brown covers the criminal justice and correctional systems in Idaho. She focuses on breaking news, public safety and social justice. Prior to coming to the Idaho Statesman, she was a reporter at the Idaho Press-Tribune, the Bakersfield Californian and the Idaho Falls Post Register.
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