Utah is on the verge of clearing its rape kit backlog

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) DNA Analysts work behind closed doors in an extraction clean room at the office of the medical examiner in Taylorsville where rape kits are being processed, June 6, 2018.

Utah’s sexual assault kit backlog, once numbering in the thousands, is now down to just seven that remain unprocessed — and the state is on track to get that to zero “real quick.”

That’s according to Utah Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson, who provided an update on the state’s efforts to clear the backlog during a briefing Monday before the Legislature’s Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

“We’ve made significant progress,” he told lawmakers.

The state continues to receive about 125 kits per month on average, Anderson said, and the current turnaround time for processing those is now down to 90 days. Two years ago, he said, that timeline was more like two years.

Anderson said the state ultimately aims to get its processing time frame down to 30 days — a goal he expects will be doable within the next year, thanks to legislative appropriations that have helped Utah’s crime lab bring on additional staff.

Rape kits preserve swabs and photo evidence of a sexual assault victim’s injuries, a process that can take four to six hours to complete, according to End the Backlog, a program administered by the national nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation. Those kits can then be used to identify suspects and as evidence in court.

The organization estimates that hundreds of thousands of kits sit untested in police and crime lab storage facilities across the country. When Utah clears its backlog, it will be the eighth state to do so, Anderson said.

After revelations several years ago that there were thousands of untested sexual assault kits around Utah, the Legislature passed a law in 2017 requiring all kits to be tested at the state’s crime lab for DNA in an effort to bolster the prevention and prosecution of rape. That bill, HB200, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, also created a tracking system for kits that allows sexual assault survivors to enter a case number and see where theirs is. It also provided funding for trauma-sensitivity training for police officers.

In advocating for the bill, Romero, D-Salt Lake City, noted that the process of collecting evidence can be traumatic for many victims of sexual violence. And when that evidence sits untested in storage, it can erode a victim's faith in the justice system.

“It’s important if someone goes through the [evidence-collecting] procedure that they get the results,” she said when the bill passed.

On Monday, Romero celebrated the state’s progress and thanked Anderson and his staff for providing frequent updates over the years.

“A lot of people always ask, ‘Where are you at?’ and so now we can say, ‘The backlog is gone.’ So thank you,” she said at the meeting.

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, congratulated Romero in the chat of the committee’s WebEx video meeting, which most lawmakers joined virtually to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“Huge shout out to Rep. Romero on getting the sexual assault kit issue done,” he wrote. “So much work over so many years!!! Wonderful legacy! Way to go Angela.”

“Rep. Hutchins - a team effort!” she responded in the chat. “You were a powerful force behind the scenes that made it happen.”

Salt Lake City’s police department announced last year that its 768-kit backlog from a 10-year period had been submitted and processed at the state crime lab as of 2018. More than 100 suspects were identified as part of those efforts, the department said in a briefing to the City Council.

Brigham Young University professor Julie Valentine, who has researched Utah’s backlog of sexual assault kits and supported Romero’s bill, said the testing of all backlogged rape kits will represent a “huge step in improving justice in rape kits.”

“Yet, we must stay diligent,” Valentine, a forensic nurse with Wasatch Forensic Nurses, said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday. “In many ways, this is just the beginning. We have to ensure that adequate funding continues for rape kit testing. We also must understand that rape kit testing is only a part of improving the criminal justice system response to rape cases.”