Testing every Utah rape kit is progress. But it needs to be fully funded

Sunday , March 12, 2017 - 5:00 AM

STANDARD-EXAMINER EDITORIAL BOARD

Rep. Angela Romero deserves her moment — she finally got Utah lawmakers to acknowledge the state’s sexual violence crisis.

When the Senate unanimously passed House Bill 200, requiring all rape kits to undergo testing at the state crime lab, the Salt Lake City Democrat described herself as “ecstatic.”

  • RELATED: “It shouldn't take 2 years for the Utah crime lab to test a rape kit. Pass HB 200”

"This is a victory for everyone when we talk about sex assault kits," Romero, the bill’s sponsor, said in a story carried by The Salt Lake Tribune. "The focus is usually on women, but men are also victims of sexual assault. It's important if someone goes through the [evidence-collecting] procedure, that they get the results."

But while it is a victory for everyone, it’s only a partial victory. Because the Legislature budgeted half the money needed for HB 200.

One in three Utah women will experience sexual violence during their lives, the state reports. Far too often, that’s rape — in a 2006 survey, 12 percent of Utah women said they’d experienced rape or attempted rape, the Utah Health Department reports.

And, as acknowledged by Romero, 2 percent of Utah men also reported the same experience.

As a result, Utah allowed a backlog of about 2,700 rape kits to accumulate through 2014. Some kits from Northern Utah dated back to 1999.

Lawmakers, briefly embarrassed by the scandal, established what became a pattern — they threw money at the crime lab, but not enough to test every rape kit.

In 2014 and 2015, the Legislature approved a total of nearly $3 million for rape kit testing. The Obama administration and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office chipped in another $1.4 million.

That allowed the crime lab to eliminate a third of its backlog. By the end of 2015, it still hadn’t touched 1,160 kits.

Jerry Henry, director of the state crime lab, said he expected the finish testing old kits by 2018. Now he faces the prospect of receiving a steady stream of new kits, thanks to HB 200.

HB 200 requires all state law enforcement agencies to submit rape kits to the state crime lab for DNA testing within 30 days of their collection. How quickly the lab must test those kits remains to be decided

Analysts estimated the crime lab would need an extra $2.4 million annually to handle the increased testing. Lawmakers provided $1.2 million.

So, while they agree the state shouldn’t allow another backlog to accumulate, lawmakers won’t fully fund testing for the hundreds of new kits that will flood the crime lab.

They’re laying the groundwork for another backlog.

Henry said with $2.4 million, he could’ve hired 17 analysts and test 800 kits a year. Now, he needs a year to see what’s possible.

"It may not be at the ideal turn-around time that we'd like to get to," he told Jessica Miller, a reporter for The Tribune. "But we'll certainly be in a lot better [position] than we are now."

In 2011 alone, sexual violence drained nearly $5 billion from the state economy, according to a report from the Utah Department of Health and the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Compared to that, an additional $1.2 million in funding for the state crime lab is nothing. Lawmakers just didn’t want to spend the money.

Because they still don’t get it.

Utah’s rape rates exceeds national levels. It has increased 17.5 percent since 2013, the Utah Health Department reports.

But a state that does not quickly test DNA samples sends a message to rape victims: You’re not important.

Or in this case, you’re not worth the additional $1.2 million a year it would take to prevent a rape kit backlog.

If you live in fear you’ll be raped again by the same attacker, that’s your problem. And if he rapes someone else, too bad.

Because that $1.2 million is what matters. Not you.

Romero got the Legislature to acknowledge Utah’s sexual violence crisis, but she couldn’t convince them to aggressively address it. Not in 2017, anyway.

In 2018, Utah sexual assault victims and their families, friends and supporters need to press lawmakers to fully fund rape kit testing. When the Legislature finally coughs up that additional $1.2 million, then we can truly say it’s a victory for everyone.

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