Utah lawmaker proposes bill requiring the testing of all sexual assault kits
Legislation would outline new requirements, including a tracking website
A Utah lawmaker introduced a measure recently that would require the state to test all sexual assault evidence, including backlogged kits, and create a tracking system for victims to follow their cases.
Sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, a Democrat whose district includes Salt Lake, the bill outlines new requirements for processing the kits to obtain DNA profiles and expedite prosecution in sexual assault cases. This week, the Utah House of Representatives Rules Committee will conduct a third reading of the bill.
The bill would require all sexual assault kits, except for those classified as restricted, to be tested for DNA profiles beginning July 1, 2018. It provides guidelines for collecting and disposing the kits, establishes the timelines for processing them and gives authority to the Department of Public Safety to implement the tracking system. The Department of Public Safety would also report to the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee each year regarding the processing of the kits.
Patricia Cassell, a Summit County prosecutor and member of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, said the board supports the bill “provided there is a fiscal note.”
“I think I agree with it and we don’t have any issues, but the problem is it has to be funded,” Cassell said. “For it to be more than a feel good deal, there has to be funding for the crime lab, to develop training and the other requirements for the prosecution council.”
Cassell, who is a former Salt Lake prosecutor, agreed there is a backlog issue at the crime lab, but emphasized it is not just of sexual assault kits. She said there is a backlog “for everything.”
“That is a big issue and that takes months to get anything, even just the DNA testing back, and you can’t prosecute a case without,” she said. “It just delays the prosecution for the victim, but I don’t think they are purposely trying to delay it they just don’t have the resources. But I don’t know that we will get a significant amount more of prosecutions by testing every single kit.”
Lt. Andrew Wright, with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, said the county does not see as many sexual assault cases as other jurisdictions in the Salt Lake Valley. He said he is unaware of the county facing a backlog with any of the evidence that has been submitted to the state, but commended Romero on pursuing the measure.
“Obviously, though, we are at the mercy of the state’s crime lab,” Wright said. “I don’t believe that we have ever experienced a backlog such as some of the valley agencies because they have more cases. But any agency would jump behind this and whatever we can do to speed up that process for a victim of sexual assault to bring a resolution to the crime.”
In 2015, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office awarded $38 million in grants to 32 jurisdictions in 20 states to test backlogged rape kits, including the Utah Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Forensic Services.
“What this bill provides is guidelines. Law enforcement, crime lab employees and those who work in advocacy like what we are doing because there will be specifics on when the kits are submitted, how they are submitted and we will be able to track all of that,” Romero said.
Romero has been involved with the Sexual Assault Processing Work Group for more than three years. She said they were “finally at a point where everyone was on board with how to process the kits.”
“It has taken some to time to get this point,” Romero said. “But the hurdle will be the funding. The fiscal note on the legislation came back at $2.4 million in ongoing funding and a majority will go to staffing of the crime lab. We have the equipment, but we will need the staff.
“More importantly, I am running this bill to get justice for the victims,” she said. “I don’t think the fiscal note should be the focus.”
Romero said more resources need to be dedicated to victims of sexual assault. She said victims tend to be left behind and several don’t even request a rape kit after an assault. She said the bill is modeled after legislation in other states, but the tracking system would be unique to Utah.
“I’m hopeful this should be a priority for us and it is just the right thing to do. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to see this bill go forward,” Romero said. “Both sides are just looking at how we are going to fund it because they understand and want to see this happen.”
To track this bill, go to http://le.utah.gov/~2017/bills/static/HB0200.html
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The Coalville native doesn’t see any major roadblocks for this year’s fair, though presenting in front of the County Council is a little nerve wracking.