Utah Announces Elimination of Sexual Assault Kit Backlog
On Thursday, September 9th, Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) Commissioner Jess Anderson, members of the Utah Legislature and administration and staff from the State Crime Lab gathered to announce the completion of a milestone in the DNA testing of sexual assault kits. Utah is the 8th state to eliminate its backlog of sexual assault kits.
The project involved significant efforts and cooperation between many different agencies and entities, including law enforcement, prosecutors, the legislature, forensic scientists, victim advocates, and health care providers. The completion of the testing will help Utah enhance its criminal justice system and ensure justice for victims.
Through the cooperative efforts to eliminate the state’s backlog, the following results have been achieved:
- 11,193 previously unsubmitted and untested rape kits were submitted and tested
- 5,025 DNA profiles have been uploaded into CODIS, the national Combined DNA Index System
- 1,072 suspects have been identified in CODIS and sent to law enforcement agencies for further investigation
We Made This a Priority
DPS Commissioner Anderson recognized the Legislature for the critical role its members played in leading to this milestone achievement.
“Legislators have been our partners through this entire endeavor,” he said. “It’s been their vision and their drive to see this through that’s helped us get to this day. “
“We as Utah and DPS made this a priority,” Commissioner Anderson said. “Since 2015, with the support of the legislature and $2 million out of DPS’ own budget, we’ve processed 11,193 sex assault kits, uploaded 5,025 DNA profiles into DNA profile database, and identified just under 2,000 suspects.”
Commissioner Anderson said that processing time for sexual assault kits has been reduced to 90 days and that DPS has set a goal to get that down to 30 days.
A Victory for Survivors of Sexual Assault
“This isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue,” said State Representative Angela Romero. “This is a human rights issue that we had to take care of and we had to bring a voice to survivors of sexual assault.”
“From the bottom of my heart I thank everyone who helped me pass this legislation,” she said. “This is really a victory for survivors of sexual assault and hopefully they’ll receive justice. And I thank everyone here who worked with us to make this happen.”
Representative Romero was the sponsor of HB 200 in the 2017 legislative session. The bill initiated the sexual assault kit testing process by requiring all of the following: the testing of all sexual assault kits within a specified amount of time, the development and implementation of a statewide sexual assault kit tracking system, the development and presentation of training for law enforcement officer for trauma-informed and survivor-centered responses and investigations of sexual assault and sexual abuse.
A Milestone for Our State
“Eliminating Utah’s sexual assault kit backlog is a milestone for our state,” said Senate President J. Stuart Adams. “As a lawmaker who has worked on this issue for years, getting to this point is gratifying. However, our work is not complete. We are committed to standing up for sexual assault victims by continuing to implement policies and funding systems, like CODIS. Providing vital information and resources enables law enforcement agencies to find perpetrators quickly, preventing additional assaults from occurring.”
The Beginning of Our Continued Pursuit of Justice
Dr. Julie Valentine is a professor and Brigham Young University and a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. In the latter role, she see patients who have been sexually assaulted and uses a sexual assault kit to collect evidence from the victim.
“Many years ago, my patients would ask me, after having a rape kit collected, they would ask me, ‘So what happens to my rape kit? What happens to the evidence collected from my body?'” Dr. Valentine related at the press conference. “The truthful answer was, ‘I don’t know.'”
To find out, Dr. Valentine started research that revealed that only about 20% of rape kits were being submitted for analysis. After she shared this information with law enforcement officers, prosecutors, Utah’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, victim advocates, legislators, “Utah rallied, Utah came together to say ‘We need this information,'” Dr. Valentine said. “As a primary author of our original federal grants, I dreamed of today. Now when I take care of a patient and they ask me ‘So what’s going to happen to my rape kit? What’s going to happen to the evidence they collected from my body?’ I can truthfully tell them, ‘this will be submitted and this will be tested.'”
Dr. Valentine said that testing the rape kits supports vicitims and it gives them a voice. “It tells them ‘you matter and we care but it also uses science to establish justice. We have cases where testing the rape kit it shows us
In her concluding remarks, Dr. Valentine noted, “We can’t consider today the end of the backlog of testing the rape kits, it has to be the beginning of our continued pursuit of justice and eradicating sexual violence.”
The Whole Nation Should Be Paying Attention To What is Happening Here in Utah Today
State Representative Eric Hutchings discussed the completion of sexual assault kit testing in the larger framework of current efforts toward police reform saying, “This is the type of policing, this is the type of public safety that our nation is begging for.”
Representative Hutchings noted the collaborative effort that helped achieve the testing completion and said, “I couldn’t be more proud that Utah again has taken the time to step up and step out…I’m really grateful that we had the foresight to get on it and to do it and to do it right.”
“I think the entire nation is going to benefit from the example Utah is setting with the technology and capabilities it is embracing that will help us better protect our communities than we ever have been able to do,” said Representative Hutchings.
Justice That Sits on a Self For Years Isn’t Justice – It’s Injustice
Utah State Senator Jake Anderegg recognized Representative Romero for her role in getting the state to this point.
“Representative Romero brought it to our attention and we realized this area had been neglected or at least underserved, we knew we had to do something. Because justice that sits on a shelf for years is not justice – it’s injustice,” he said.
“We are striving every day to improve,” Senator Anderegg said. “This is a great example of what I think can happen when we come together and I think we’ve got a lot more to do and I look forward to it.”
Where We Go From Here As A State
The Utah Legislature recently appropriated additional, on-going funding of $1.6 million to the crime lab to support future efforts. Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson provided details about the “three simple but very important things” this funding is designed to do.
Speaker Wilson noted that it will “provide resources to continue reducing turn around time in the crime lab so we can get information to law enforcement quicker [and] to help victims faster.”
“It will allow the state crime lab to implement technology that will solve cases where DNA results previously had been inconclusive,” he said.
In addition to being able to get better information to solve crimes, the funding will also allow the crime lab to “implement some additional new technology that provides additional information about DNA samples using a singular process that can help solve cold cases,” which have not been able to be solved using current and previous technology.
State Crime Lab Director Jay Henry concluded the press event by thanking the crime lab staff, who have worked diligently to eliminate the sexual assault kit backlog. He also thanked the Legislature for their commitment to helping ensure the Crime Lab had the resources necessary to achieve this goal. “This investment in public safety is going to pay dividends to law enforcement, to suspects that have been wrongly accused and also, importantly, to victims,” said Henry