The Salt Lake Tribune has reported that several jurisdictions in Utah have backlogs of untested rape kits.
Police Chief Lee Russo of West Valley City, a suburb of Salt Lake City with a population of 129,480 residents, recently discovered 124 rape kits sitting untested at his department.
The Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake, which serves communities in Salt Lake County, found that 50 – 100 rape kits from old cases had not previously been tested. The department recently received a grant that enabled detectives to reopen about 500 cold cases.
At the Utah State Crime Lab, 97 kits await testing, and the turnaround time is typically 4 – 5 months, higher than the national average. Both Joyful Heart and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) consider a kit to be in a backlog at a crime lab facility if it has not been tested within 30 days.
(A report released this month by NIJ found that the national average turnaround time for DNA testing in violent crimes—including sexual assault—is 106 days. NIJ surveyed more than 120 public crime labs to which it has awarded grants regarding their backlogs as of Dec. 31, 2011, the most recent date for which data are available.)
Backlogs occur for a number of reasons—all of which we can see in Utah. In West Valley City and the Unified Police Department, rape kits were never sent to the lab for testing, which is likely a function of both strained resources and personnel needed to track untested kits and send them to the lab in a timely manner. Another factor is detective discretion, officers prioritizing—or de-prioritizing—testing evidence based on whether or not they believe the case is likely to move forward, whether the identify of the perpetrator is known and whether the department, overall, prioritizes sexual assault cases.
The Utah State Crime Lab is struggling, as is the vast majority of public crime labs, with testing requests constantly outpacing the funding and personnel needed to keep up with testing. Jay Henry, the crime lab’s Director, estimates that the lab’s caseload has risen by 50 percent in recent years while staffing has remained the same. As a result, rape kits now take twice as long to process, he says.
To learn more about the reasons behind the backlog, click here. We invite you to advocate for rape kit reform and testing to your elected officials at both the state and federal level so that law enforcement and crime labs can have the resources they need to respond effectively to sexual violence in your community.
- By Lendon Ebbels, January 22, 2014