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State is trying to address a backlog of 2,200-plus untested sexual assault kits E-mail
Opinion
Thursday, 10 August 2017 09:02


A SECOND OPINION, The Topeka Capital-Journal



Kansas has established a firm reputation as a state in which the detection and punishment of sexual violence is a major priority. From the certification of more than 60 batterer intervention programs (which provide victims with shelter, counseling, legal assistance and many other services) to the recent passage of bills that expand victim access to mental health resources, make it easier to obtain protection orders and increase penalties for certain forms of domestic abuse, Kansas is becoming more proactive on sexual violence every day.

However, like many other states, Kansas has an alarming backlog of untested sexual assault kits — more than 2,200, to be exact. Sexual Assault Kits are collections of DNA evidence from the victims of rape or any other type of sexual violence. After a sexual assault forensic exam is conducted, materials such as blood samples, swabs, combs, etc. are stored in the kit to ensure that as much evidence as possible is preserved. But thousands of these kits remain untested in the U.S., which can delay the process of finding and prosecuting the perpetrators of sexual crimes. This is why the Kansas Bureau of Investigation formed the multidisciplinary 22-member Kansas Sexual Assault Kit Initiative three years ago.

The KBI working group recently released a report detailing its findings and recommendations. It identifies four primary “barriers related to SAK testing.”

First, there’s a “lack of trauma-informed training” that makes it difficult for investigators to interact with victims and “impacts the viability of a case and its progression within the criminal justice system.” Second, a lack of resources has prevented law enforcement agencies from implementing “computerized evidence management systems” and other initiatives that would increase efficiency. Moreover, there isn’t enough money to pay for investigators who are trained to handle cases of sexual violence. Third, there are no standardized procedures for how law enforcement agencies should submit, retain and destroy sexual assault kits. Because there aren’t any guidelines or requirements, these practices “vary widely across the state.” And fourth, there are common misconceptions about sexual assault that can affect the way victims are treated in and out of the criminal justice system.

While some of these issues are more directly related to the backlog itself than others (such as insufficient resources and the lack of consistent standards for the way kits are handled), the report points out that the reasons for the “accumulation of unsubmitted SAKs are multi-faceted, complex and interrelated.” We need to understand these reasons so we can reduce the backlog and make sure another one doesn’t take its place. As the authors of the report note, “Early efforts from other jurisdictions to test unsubmitted SAKs have resulted in hundreds of rape indictments and the identification of serial offenders.” The acceleration of this process should be one of our most pressing objectives.

The existence of such a substantial backlog in Kansas — which includes one kit that was collected in 1989 — is completely unacceptable. We agree that there are far too many “victims who have been woefully underserved by the justice system.” However, Kansas deserves credit for being the “first state in the country to complete a statewide inventory with voluntary participation by all law enforcement agencies.” This process may be overdue, but it’s certainly welcome.

 

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The High Plains Daily Leader and Southwest Daily Times are published Sunday through Friday and reaches homes throughout the Liberal, Kansas retail trade zone. The Leader & Times is the official newspaper of Seward County, USD No. 480, USD No. 483 and the cities of Liberal and Kismet.  The Leader & Times is a member of the Liberal Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Press Association and the Associated Press.

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