Starting May the Washington Crime Lab will test sexual assault kits within 45 days

VANCOUVER – Starting May the Washington State Crime Lab must test sexual assault kits within 45 days of receiving them. This is according to a House Bill 1166 passed in 2019.

The laws regarding test kits changed in 2015, after House Bill 1068 passed. This law was intended to help reduce the backlog of sexual assault kits in the state. It requires all sexual assault kits to be tested. This law also provided funds to help do so.

The Attorney General’s Office (AG) provided additional funds through the Washington Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) in 2017. The Washington State Crime Lab was given $1.5 million to continue testing the backlog of kits. In total the AG’s Office received $3 million from the National SAKI.

The other funds are used to provide resources for victims and more.

According to Washington State Patrol Director of Communications, Chris Loftis, these funds allowed the crime lab to outsource older kits to accredited labs across the nation.

In 2018, the AG’s Office took inventory of the backlog of sexual assault kits and found there was over 9,500 kits that hadn’t been tested. According to Loftis, 97% of them have now been tested.

In 2018, the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) and Yakima Police Department (YPD) had a combined total of 357 sexual assault kits in their possession that hadn’t been tested.

Both agencies tell me the majority of them have now gone to the state crime lab for testing.

Sargent Jason Pepper with the YCSO said their goal now is to get new kits to the crime lab for testing within a week of getting them. He also said the quicker testing period will be helpful for law enforcement.

“With them being able to get back quicker, it helps us move forward in our cases,” Sargent Pepper said.

The funds provided by the initiative’s grant also helped hire 18 scientists to help with testing over the last three years, build a larger crime lab in Vancouver and get new robotics to help speed the process along.

Loftis said the idea behind the robots is they are constantly moving samples, so work is being done 24/7 instead of relying on one person working an eight hour shift.

Another part of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative is entering DNA samples in the FBI’s Combined DNA Indexing System (CODIS). So far, there have been 1,366 matches to offenders in our state’s offender database or offenders in other states. A total of 2,463 DNA profiles have been entered into the CODIS system.

According to WSP, these profiles could help catch other criminals if they commit future crimes.

“The message that we want folks to know is that if you’re a victim of a crime like this we’re not going to give up, we’re not going to forget about you or put your evidence in a box and put that box in a shelf and forget,” Loftis said. “We’re gonna pursue as it far as we can,” Loftis said.

According to Sargent Pepper, when they handle sexual assault investigations, the victim’s well being is always the focus.

If an assault just happened and a patrol officer responds, they make sure the victim has a place to stay, they don’t have contact with the suspect and provide them with resources.

If they have enough evidence to arrest the suspect on the spot, they do. If not, they take any evidence available like clothes and a sexual assault kit.

If the victim is a child, the process is a little different. The YCSO uses forensic interviewers from the Child Advocacy Center – usually for children 12 and under.

Loftis said responding to the needs of the victims, is the most important thing in these investigations.

“Justice is also speaking to that victim, ‘hey we’re hear for you,’ our organization was created and designed to meet your needs,” Loftis said.

The crime lab hopes to finish testing the backlog of kits within the next few months.

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