Northwest News

Gov. Inslee signs bill to encourage testing of rape kits

A new state law will require that law enforcement agencies in Washington request testing of all future sexual assault exam kits — a change supporters say will help catch criminals and bring justice to victims.

On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law House Bill 1068, which will require police agencies to ask the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory to test every new rape kit , as long as the victim approves.

Upon signing the legislation, Inslee called the number of rape kits that go untested in Washington a “scourge,” and thanked lawmakers and other community members for their leadership on the issue.

Rape kits, known formally as sexual assault evidence collection kits, contain swabs and other tools used to collect DNA samples and other evidence from rape victims. They are stocked by police deparments and hospitals, and are intended for use immediately after a rape has occurred.

But once the evidence is collected, rape kits often languish in storage, a problem both nationwide and in Washington state. Earlier this year, the State Patrol estimated that there are between 5,000 and 6,000 untested rape kits in Washington, though the precise number of unanalyzed kits isn’t known.

In January, the Seattle Police Department announced it would begin testing more than 1,200 rape kits that had gone untested in the past 10 years.

Under the new state law, which will take effect July 24, agencies will be required to submit a request for testing within 30 days after receiving a rape kit, unless a victim objects to the evidence being used in an investigation.

State Rep. Tina Orwall, who sponsored the legislation, said the goal is not only to empower rape victims, but also to help police identify serial rapists who may strike again.

“Victims deserve for those rape kits to be tested,” the Des Moines Democrat said Thursday. “I think this really is part of the path for victims to heal.”

The bill struck a compromise by requiring only that law enforcement agencies make the testing request within 30 days, without dictating that the rape kits be actually sent to the State Patrol Crime Lab within that time.

Representatives of the State Patrol had said the laboratory wouldn’t be able to test all the kits immediately, given the lab’s current level of funding, and that the lab wouldn’t have room to hold all the untested rape kits while they awaited testing.

Orwall said the new law will still help police locate rape suspects by getting more rape kits in the queue to be processed. Additionally, it will require the State Patrol crime lab to track how many kits await testing, which will help the Legislature determine whether more lab resources are needed, she said.

The measure also will convene a task force to examine how the state might begin processing older untested rape kits. Orwall said the task force will explore in part whether the state can acquire funding from the federal government to help reduce its testing backlog.

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