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WSP crime labs asks Legislature for $6 million to address rape kit backlog

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

As the 2019 Legislative session gets underway, much of the attention has been on big issues like mental health, education, and a capital gains tax.

RELATED: Washington’s solution to backlog of rape kits could be in Ohio

Another item on the agenda in the 105 day session will be addressing Washington state’s backlog of rape kits.

There were some big achievements in between sessions, with State Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office completing a statewide inventory of old untested kits in October.

That count found nearly 6,500 kits — the oldest from 1982 — still sitting on police evidence shelves having yet to be submitted to the crime lab.

A month later, the state’s rape kit tracking system went live, allowing victims of sexual assault, law enforcement, prosecutors and others to follow the progress of individual rape kits through the testing process.

In the meantime, other cities and states across the country started are making significant progress — in some cases clearing backlogs — with more efficient processes in new high throughput labs.

The labs use more efficient DNA testing methods and high tech equipment, including robots that can reduce testing time from over a year to about a month.

With the massive backlog and old kits being submitted to the lab by the hundreds following the state Attorney General’s inventory, it’s no surprise that leaders of our state’s crime labs want to follow suit.

RELATED: New system highlights progress, more needed to clear rape kit backlog

“One of the things about forensic scientists is that they always own their backlog,” said Bruce Siggins who manages the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab in Vancouver.

“One of the things we are looking at is what’s coming in, what am I getting done what am I getting it out? You take that home with you, you want to get it done, you want to have that number going down. We don’t have a situation where scientists are panicking, certainly, but they’re still seeing them come in faster and faster and faster, and it reaches that point of ‘how do we handle this? What do we do?’ We’re not winning this. People want to win, they want to succeed,” Siggins explained.

You get what you pay for

That’s why WSP is asking the Legislature for $6 million dollars in their budget.

Siggins says they have unused space on the second floor of the Vancouver lab that can be home to a new high throughput lab, and $825,000 in federal grant money to build it out, they just need lawmakers to match that and add more dollars to operate it with additional staff and new equipment.

If they get all that, Siggins believes they can slash the testing time down to about a month and make significant progress on the backlog.

“I can tell you one thing for sure, every DNA scientist on the second floor would dance for joy to be able to do that because that’s getting that backlog off their back. That’s being able to say to the prosecutor ‘why yes I’ll have that ready for you.’ And the victims that can track their sexual assault kits through our sexual assault kit tracking system, if they’re watching that kit move through that tracking system that fast, that’s going to give them comfort,” Siggins said.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson hired a national DNA tech expert to hold a conference at the Vancouver lab this past week. Along with Siggins, other lab supervisors and staff from across the state talked about what they could do with what they have to make processing the kits more efficient – and how they would improve the process when the new lab is built – which will get the green light if the Legislature approves the funding.

Democratic State Representative Tina Orwall attended that training and says she understands why there was a hint of hesitation among some of the scientists to overhaul their process.

“Change is challenging; it takes time for training and to bring in new practices, and I think that there’s a concern that the lab staff have that they really want to keep it high quality and I really respect that, but I do think that these other states have been really successful with these other models. And so I think, between the new robotics, the new team models, doing the direct DNA — which is very effective to test sexual assault kits — I think these are things that we haven’t fully embraced in our state which will make a huge difference,” Orwall said.

That being so, she will push for that $6 million budget ask and more to help address the backlog.

Legislation she’s introducing this week will also put a clock on the backlog.

“I think part of it is having that bigger vision and longer term vision of how we need to support our labs, and so some of the things that the bill includes are timelines around when we would like to see the older kits tested by, as well as time frames of how rapidly to test new sexual assault kits coming in. I think those are the parameters that then can allow the lab to say ‘what do we need? What do we need to do, what do we need as far as resources to make that happen?’” Orwall explained.

An ongoing investment

In many states, rape victims have had their kits destroyed. Orwall’s bill will also include guidelines for not destroying rape kits here in our state, and reporting requirements for rape kits, as well as a review and audit of the system in two years to see how all these efforts have impacted our backlog.

Orwall stresses this is all going to be an ongoing investment, but getting the new lab and staff is a good starting point.

The new processes and lab would also help get DNA uploaded into CODIS — the FBI’s DNA crime database — faster, which Siggins says it has become abundantly clear is vital for everyone’s safety.

“People are beginning to understand that there are some people out there that unfortunately seem to make this a hobby,” Siggins explained.

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Siggins says that not only will the high throughput lab help clear the backlog more quickly, and speed up the process of other DNA processing at the lab for major crimes such as murder investigations, once a backlog is cleared, the process can be used for other types of criminal investigations – such as property crimes.

“The expertise can be applied to those just as well. If you have someone who is a serial robber who’s going around violating people’s privacy, and all of a sudden you’ve got this profile and this pattern. If you take one person like that off the streets, you have now solved a whole bunch of these type of crimes, and all of the potential crimes that would have kept on committing,” Siggins said.

He and others at labs across the state are urging the Legislature to approve this funding, as is State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

“Six million on the context of our state budget is very, very modest indeed to address such a significant issue. And many of our issues, [such as] mental health, they can seem intractable, they’re just complex. The investment seems so massive. For this issue, there is a list. There are specific rape kits out there that have not been tested — there’s a lot of them — but it is a finite number. We can address that and solve this problem, “Ferguson said.

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