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Clock ticking for bill to address rape kit backlog

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

There are some 8,000 untested rape kits in Washington state — the oldest dating back to 1982. Most have been sitting on police evidence shelves for years — or even decades — often at the discretion of police who, for a variety of reasons, including things like a victim knew their attacker and opted not to submit kits for testing.

In 2015, lawmakers passed a bill that ensures all new kits moving forward are submitted for testing. But the bill did nothing to address the old kits.
Rep. Tina Orwall’s Substitute House Bill 1166 would finally mandate testing of those thousands of old kits and much more to clear Washington state’s rape kit backlog. And it would also ensure we never get to the point of a massive backlog again.

In addition to mandating all of those old kits are submitted for testing, the bill also includes storage requirements for rape kits, extends the statute of limitations for cases involving suspects identified by DNA from old, untested kit, requires new victim notification training for police, and prohibits the destruction of rape kits. Also, for the first time, the bill sets deadlines to complete the testing, requiring all old kits be tested in six weeks rather than the current 14 months.

Survivor and advocate Leah Griffin says there is no time for lawmakers to wait.

“Waiting 14 months for evidence is extremely detrimental to a survivor’s mental health,” Griffin said, noting she understands from personal experience.

“When I was trying to recover, I had PTSD, I couldn’t leave my apartment, I lost a lot of weight, and I had panic attacks,” Griffin recalled, adding that was at least in part to the 9 months the investigation lasted.

Griffin says there’s no telling how many of those untested rape kits will lead to repeat and serial offenders who have been able to reoffend because the kits were never tested. This has been the case in backlogs getting cleared across the country and in some of those our state has completed.

On top of that, Griffin says all those thousands of untested kits exacerbate Washington’s mental health crisis.

“This is a mental health issue, one; it’s a law and justice issue, two; and it should be a priority to get done,” Griffin said.

It is a priority for Orwall, who says this is going to be the year this finally gets done and Washington state makes sure a rape kit backlog can never happen again both for survivors and for the safety of the community.

SHB 1166 must be heard and acted on in the House Appropriations Committee before a March 1 cutoff date. It’s expected to get a hearing next week.

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