Lawmakers Seek Answers On Rape Kit Backlog

Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the country, but it has no mechanism for tracking untested rape kits. Now, legislators are considering an audit to find out just how big the backlog is. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

When the Legislature’s research department was asked to find how many rape kits sat on shelves waiting to be analyzed, it kept hearing one answer: Unknown.

The researcher could not even compare Alaska’s kit processing rate to other states because there was so little hard data on how many kits had even been processed in the first place.

In response, Sen. Berta Gardner and Rep. Geran Tarr — both Anchorage Democrats — have each filed bills asking for an audit of rape kits in the state.

Tarr’s aide, Ray Friedlander, laid out the problem to the House State Affairs committee on Thursday, explaining the challenge of coordinating evidence processing rules with the many small police departments across Alaska.

“There’s not a single uniform protocol utilized by 150 law enforcement agencies to do the same,” said Friedlander. “So, in essence, there could be a local law enforcement agency here in Alaska that is in possession of an untested sexual assault kit potentially containing DNA that could remove a rapist from Alaska’s streets, but we don’t know. There’s no database or way to manage these untested sexual assault kits that have been shelved.”

The bill would require every law enforcement agency in the state to go through its inventory and find out how many untested kits it has and when they were collected. Friedlander explained to Committee Chair Bob Lynn, an Anchorage Republican, that the numbers have been high in other places where this analysis has been done.

FRIEDLANDER: Texas had 20,000.
LYNN: 20,000?
FRIEDLANDER: 20,000. Detroit had 11,000. Memphis had 12,164. Illinois had 4,000, and Ohio had 4,000. And we acknowledge that …
LYNN: And we don’t know what we have here.
FRIEDLANDER: Right.

From what is known, there’s a certain amount of variability in how different agencies handle rape kits. Local police departments set their own policies. The state troopers have only been required to send back all rape kits as of February of this year. Once kits make it to the state crime lab, there is a set protocol for tracking them.

But even at the crime lab, there are problems in processing the kits. Orin Dym is the forensic laboratory manager, and he explained that in emergencies, they can turn around kit results in 24 hours. But usually, it takes much longer.

“Our average turnaround time today is 170 days. Our oldest sexual assault request goes back 16 months today,” said Dym. “I will say that is a vast improvement over the 6+ years it used to be.”

That processing time troubled committee members, like Anchorage Republican Liz Vazquez.

VAZQUEZ: So, why does it take so long?
DYM: Rep. Vazquez, through the chair, it takes so long because there are many times where the incoming requests for service exceed our capability to complete the analysis. We have more business than we can complete in a timely fashion.

Dym responded that it would likely take two years for the crime lab to process the backlog in house, and that’s assuming there is no staff turnover or loss of funding.

Neither Vazquez nor Lynn found much comfort in that.

VAZQUEZ: I am still very troubled with the 170 days it takes to …
LYNN: Me, too.
VAZQUEZ: … test these kits. I mean it’s a haunting thought in my mind.

The committee plans to hear the bill again next week. A separate request to audit the crime lab is also planned.