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Initiative cuts down number of untested sexual assault kits

Less than 70 from 1995-2015 still need to be tested in Montana.

Thousands of untested sexual assault kits sit in evidence rooms across the country. Montana lawmakers are working to get those kits off the shelves and processed.

Starting in 2016 under the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, law enforcement agencies across the state began processing untested sexual assault kits and sending them in to the state.

The initiative focused on the 1,252 untested kits from 1995 to 2015, Montana Sexual Assault Kit Initiative coordinator Joan Eliel said. Now less than 70 remain to be tested.

“We had to go through, research each case, identify why it hadn’t been sent in and report that information to the state,” Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said.

Sexual assault kits are taken when a sexual assault is reported. After evidence is collected at a hospital the victim can decide to send the kit to law enforcement and pursue the case.

There are reasons a sexual assault kit might not get tested. According to statewide data on unsubmitted kits collected by the Montana Department of Justice, 23 percent lacked enough evidence of a crime; 17 percent had victims who didn’t cooperate, chose not to pursue the case or recanted; and prosecution was declined in 13 percent.

“Our agency -- and I think most law enforcement agencies -- would send a kit off for testing,” Curry said. “We did not identify one kit where we said, ‘Oh, oops, somebody should have sent this in.”

Curry’s department sent 39 kits in to the state. The DNA from those kits, along with those from other Montana law enforcement agencies, will be submitted to CODIS, the FBI’s DNA database.

“Back in the day it used to take a truckload of DNA in order to create a CODIS profile,” Eliel said. “Today, it doesn’t.”

Once in CODIS, the profiles can be accessed by agencies across the country.

“It’s been pretty amazing,” Eliel said, noting information uploaded from Montana has been used to solve out-of-state cases.

The state secured a grant for two lab techs and a robot to facilitate testing of the additional sexual assault cases at the state crime lab, Eliel said.

Although less than 70 kits remain to be tested, the work isn’t done. Eliel said lawmakers are working on a bill to fund continued testing of all sexual assault kits.

“What we’re hoping is we would send those tests in, no matter the outcome of the case,” she said.

One piece lawmakers still need to determine is funding.

“The worst thing we could do is do an unfunded mandate,” Eliel said. “Saying we’re going to submit all kits to the lab and then our lab just is overwhelmed.”

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