Washington must prioritize ending its untenable rape kit testing backlog.
Nearly 6,500 Washington rape victims have been waiting years, and in some cases since 1982, to hear their attacker has been brought to justice. Many were unaware that the evidence gathered after their assaults had never been tested for DNA and was gathering dust in evidence rooms across the state.
Washington officials finally know the extent of the problem and have started testing those old rape test kits and processing the evidence at the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory. This crucial inventory work in agencies across Washington was funded by a national grant, starting three years ago.
Those old test kits represent just one part of a bigger problem. Every week, more sexual assault evidence kits are created and sent to the State Crime Lab, which has an ever-growing backlog. Current evidence is taking between eight and 12 months to process. National best practices call for a maximum two-month processing time, according to State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the legislative champion of this work.
Meanwhile, more crimes are committed, and justice is not served.
The State Patrol Crime Lab must do better, the Legislature should commit more money toward eliminating the backlog and Gov. Jay Inslee should demand this get done.
Orwall traveled to Ohio in August with a group of the lab’s scientists to see how that state’s crime lab eliminated its sexual assault kit testing backlog. They returned with new ideas about how to improve processing of rape test kits, including new technology with robot assistance.
The improvements will cost money, but the State Patrol recently won more than $2 million in federal grants to buy new equipment, improve work spaces for the Vancouver lab and train scientists on the new equipment. Now the Legislature needs to fund the hiring of more scientists to test the new evidence kits and process the old ones, which are sent to a private lab for testing. The State Patrol enters the results into a national database.
More than three years ago, the Legislature approved funding to begin testing about 10,000 rape-evidence kits collected before 2015 but never processed for DNA.
Since 2015, 1,700 old kits have been tested and DNA uploaded to a federal database. Significantly, 228 of those kits have been connected to at least one other case in the national database. That means 228 cold cases have new leads and potentially could be solved. Rapists could be sent to prison, or those already arrested or jailed could be charged with another offense. Once new evidence is processed and connections made, local law-enforcement officials have more work to do, including sensitively bringing that information back to the victims.
Washington must prioritize ending both testing backlogs. Solving the two issues will require money, political will and an honest evaluation of how the State Patrol Crime Lab does its work. This is a challenge that must be met.