Despite progress, Alaska lacks resources to handle rape kit backlog

The State of Alaska is chipping away at the thousands of backlogged and untested sexual assault kits. But officials with the Department of Public Safety stress that recent progress is partially due to one-time grant funds, and that it needs more resources to keep up with rising demands for DNA testing in violent and sexual crimes.

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On Friday, DPS released its annual legislative report on the statewide inventory of rape kits. Though down from last year when such reporting began, the crime lab still has 2,568 kits from police departments all around the state that had not been submitted previously and remain untested for DNA matches.

One reason for that high number is that in recent years, DPS centralized protocols for how sexual assault kits from police departments statewide are tested and stored long-term. Officials with the department say the current pool of untested kits represent decades of samples from 48 law enforcement agencies all around Alaska.

Mounting national attention on rape kit backlogs led Alaska officials to audit and overhaul the state’s collection system.

“Alaska has started looking at that, as well, and it started looking at an inventory statewide of how many kits do our law enforcement agencies have, and why weren’t they submitted,” explained┬áMichelle Collins, who supervises forensic biology for the sexual assault team.

As recently as 2017, kits would remain untested in a local police department when the victim wished to remain anonymous, if police thought DNA would not further an investigation, or when prosecutors didn’t think a case was strong enough to bring charges. Priority is generally given to cases involving serious violence or an imminent threat to the public.

According to Collins, the state will now collect and retain rape kits in a more uniform manner.

“We want to test even if it’s not needed to prosecute that case, we still want to test that kit and determine if there’s data there that may be useful in other cases,” Collins said.

Under a federal program called the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative meant to reduce sexual assault kit backlogs, 577 samples from Alaska State Trooper have been sent out of state for testing at a private lab. The money is also being used to study and implement best practices on how DPS coordinates with other police departments.

However, officials say without more staff and resources budgeted from the Legislature, the backlog in kits will grow again. In its report, the department is asking lawmakers to add around $700,500 in new operating funds for expanded forensic testing.