Idaho tests over 300 rape kits, still deals with delays. Study urges more victim services
Ruth Brown, Idaho Statesman
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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – The Idaho State Police released its annual report Wednesday on the backlog and status of sexual assault kits in the state, including those that are untested, and 2020 saw a decline in kit submission.
The annual report became a requirement after a piece of legislation that passed in 2016, followed by several more pieces of legislation implementing regulations around the testing of such kits.
A sexual assault kit, commonly called a rape kit, is an exam performed on a victim to collect evidence. The exam can take several hours and includes swabbing and combing the victim’s body to look for forensic evidence, such as hair, semen or saliva. The person’s body is often photographed to document injuries or bruising.
The forensic evidence can be used to identify suspects or exonerate wrongfully accused people.
Prior to 2016, Idaho had no statewide mandates on whether a sexual assault kit needed to be submitted to the lab for testing. There was also no system in place to track the kits. Several laws have passed since then, pitched by Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, and there are now statewide policies on the testing and tracking of rape kits.
In 2020, 477 such kits were collected at medical facilities across the state, according to ISP’s report. Of those, 334 were submitted to ISP’s forensic services lab. Staff were able to complete the testing on 329 kits — some from 2020 and some from the buildup that occurred in prior years.
From the tested 2020 kits, ISP was able to create 114 new DNA database entries. Not every kit tested had enough evidence to create a DNA profile. Of the kits tested in 2020, six got hits in the CODIS DNA database, meaning the perpetrator already had DNA in the system and it was a match.
Two of the six were from cases that had no suspect, according to ISP Forensic Services Director Matthew Gamette. Four of the six were hits to a prior offender.
CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) is a database that tracks DNA profiles in the criminal justice system; it is run by the FBI.
The ISP report states that it took law enforcement an average of 39 days to submit the kits to the lab in 2020.
Kits may not go to the lab for testing if the victim reports anonymously or asks that his or her kit not be tested. And if law enforcement finds evidence there was no crime committed, a kit may not be tested. The report showed 57 kits fell into that category.
It took the lab an average of 178 days to complete testing a kit.
There was a decrease in kit submission from 2019, when the lab saw 612 submissions. However, many of the 2019 rape kits were old, previously untested ones that were being entered in compliance with the new Idaho laws.
As of Dec. 31, there were 541 kits at the Meridian lab pending analysis. (There were 114 kits awaiting a submission decision from law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office, so they had not yet reached the lab.) There were 363 kits that had been in the lab longer than 90 days, and the oldest sexual assault kit had been there for 1,051 days — nearly three years.
Gamette said most of the kits still at the lab are those that were submitted from older cases after the 2016 law went into effect. The lab prioritizes cases where the community or victim are in active danger and processes those first.
Gamette hopes that in 2021 the lab will be able to finish processing the backlog of kits. The coronavirus pandemic did hamper the lab’s ability to train people as much as he would have liked.
“We want to be and do much better than what (the turnaround times) represent,” he said.
In 2017, when the state started tracking kits, the percentage not tested because of a law enforcement decision was at 19%. By 2020, that percentage decreased to 7.8%. Gamette praised this change.
VICTIMIZATION AND VICTIM SERVICES
Boise State University released the Biennial Report on Victimization and Victim Services last week, outlining multiple recommendations for needed victim services.
The report analyzed the impact of 2016’s House Bill 528, pitched by Wintrow, which created the system of tracking and reporting sexual assault kits. One of HB 528’s requirements was that ISP submits the report auditing law enforcement that was released Wednesday.
The report looked at the bill’s impact on sexual assault case clearance. The study analyzed kits submitted between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2017, which was one year before HB 528 and one year after HB 528.
The report issued six recommendations, including providing more victim services, especially in rural areas. It also recommends amending Idaho Code 39-6316, which mandates that officers provide domestic violence victims with information on available services at the time of reporting. The report recommends victims of sexual violence also be included.
The report also recommended that policing agencies receive specialized training on the neurobiological effects of trauma, rape myths, societal stigma faced by sexual violence victims and active strategies they can use in their response. The BSU report found that in 48% of the cases sampled, police “noted victim credibility issues,” which were shown to have an impact on case clearance.
Of the 48%, the report found the most frequent problem was a victim’s reluctance to cooperate with the investigation, followed by difficulty in recalling details, and then a victim’s sexual history.
The report stated, “Officers noting victim credibility issues remained the sole predictor of a case being cleared by arrest and remaining inactive.”
The report also said that Idaho should invest in a “scientifically rigorous statewide survey on victimization in Idaho.”