State Politics

Idaho will now test all rape kits. It could lead to more convictions, trust of police

After three years of implementing regulations around the testing and tracking of sexual assault evidence kits, a new Idaho law went into place Monday that mandates the testing of all kits, with very rare exceptions.

The legislation was pitched by Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, who has headed past legislation on the subject, too. Prior to 2016, there was no regulation around how police tracked and submitted sexual assault evidence, better known as rape kits, to the Idaho State Police lab for testing. It left the decision of whether to test a kit largely up to the single police officer handling the case. Now the discretion has been taken away, largely to avoid bias and to create a uniform process.

“It’s so exciting to be at this place today,” Wintrow said Monday. “Because several years ago we were just setting minimum standards, and through the tracking mechanism and the review of data, we could see where we had glitches and some problems.”

A sexual assault exam is preformed by a medical professional. The exam can take several hours and includes swabbing and combing the victim’s body for any DNA evidence, such as bodily fluids or hair. Victims are often photographed for evidence, and bruises and other injuries are documented. The evidence is then used to identify a potential perpetrator with DNA and to confirm a victim’s account. The evidence also could help acquit anyone who might be wrongfully accused.

As of this week, all kits will be tested in Idaho, with rare exceptions. Those could include if a victim undergoes a sexual assault exam but chooses to remain anonymous because they aren’t ready to move forward with reporting. Anonymous kits aren’t processed right away but are preserved for at least 10 years in case the survivor decides to come forward.

Annie Hightower, policy director at the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said the policy of testing all rape kits has strengthened survivors’ confidence in police.

“One of the reasons why we really supported this legislation is that it is a really good tool to build trust with the law enforcement system, because this way a survivor of sexual violence knows that if they go get evidence collected, that the evidence will be tested and made available to use in a case,” Hightower said. “Where that was not a guarantee before and now it is.”

Matthew Gamette, ISP forensic services director, said Monday at the Statehouse that there has been an increase in submission of kits and that could lead to more investigations. The lab is still working its way through all of the previously untested kits, but he is hopeful it can complete that work by the end of 2019.

Then the goal is to be able to complete the testing of any new kits submitted to the lab within 30 days.

“I do think that we will see an increase (in DNA matches),” Gamette said. “We’re more effectively dealing with that now through the legislation.”

The legislation has also created follow-up steps after a match is found, he said. It ensures that when a hit is found in the DNA database, it is followed up on and victims are notified.

Since Wintrow’s first piece of legislation passed, which mandated that all rape kits be given a serial code number to track them in a public online system, ISP now has 3,714 kits in the system. That represents 3,714 people who were subjected to a sexual assault exam. Some of those kits could be very old and police just recently uploaded them into the new system, while others could have been submitted just recently after evidence was collected from a victim.

Since Idaho implemented the tracking mechanism, nearly 30 states have inquired with ISP about using their tracking program, Gamette said.

“It helps with organizing law enforcement, it helps with transparency, it helps with empowering victims to know where their evidence is,” said Wintrow.

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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.