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Processing evidence kits backlog changes how sexual assault cases are prosecuted in Utah

Photo of a rape kit. (Deseret News) Sexual assault evidence collection kit are shown during committee meeting at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Feb. 8. Utah crime lab officials are feeling optimistic as they work to speed up the time it takes to process sexual assault evidence kits, after lawmakers approved a measure last month that sends more than $1 million to go toward this effort.

SALT LAKE CITY– At one time, there were more than 3,000 sexual assault evidence kits, also known as rape kits, waiting to be processed in Utah. A law passed in 2017 required the state to work through the backlog and provided millions in new funding. With the help of additional staff hired using that state money and other resources, State Crime Lab Director Amy Lightfoot says they were able to catch up and now processing evidence kits is a matter of weeks.

Utah processing evidence kits faster 

“Our turnaround time on average for sex assault kits from when a kit comes in to when a report is released is about 41 days, ” Lightfoot told KSL Newsradio.

That means the kit is now a much more effective tool for prosecutors trying to make a case against a defendant accused of sexual assault.

Sim Gill, the Salt Lake County District Attorney, says there have been 34 prosecutions based on that effort.

“When I talk about 34 cases that we filed, there were 34 offenders who thought they got away with it,” Gill explained. “There were 34 victims who could not bring some measure of closure to it.” And, he says, the numbers don’t reflect the serious impact it’s had. 

“I think one of the things is to recognize what this means to victims who have undergone incredible trauma and the ability to corroborate what they are saying.”

Supporting sexual assault survivors

Sonya Martinez-Ortiz, the director of the Rape Recovery Center, says it’s helped survivors have more confidence in their cases.’

“Both the issues related to the handling of evidence, but then also just being believed,” she said.

District Attorney Gill says his office created a Victim Support Services Division, in part as a response to the backlog of untested evidence kits. He says they need to change the sometimes harsh treatment of sexual assault survivors.

“From the community response to law enforcement methods to prosecution response, as a systemic response where victims come in contact with and how we were treating these victims and revictimizing these victims,” Gill explained.

Martinez-Ortiz says clearing the backlog of evidence kits has been important, but there’s much more that needs to be done.

“The majority of funding we as a society contribute to this issue is related to the criminal justice issue, and we don’t spend nearly enough on both the healing services for survivors, but we especially don’t spend enough resources on the prevention of sexual violence.”

Utah lawmakers get involved

State Representative Angela Romero, the sponsor of the legislation that provided funding to expand crime lab staff and test the evidence kits, says she agrees with Martinez-Ortiz “100%.” The legislature provided additional funding in its last session for sexual assault prevention.

“That preventative piece is huge,” Romero told KSL Newsradio, “but I would also love to see more dollars go into services that help survivors and victims of sexual assault.”

Even with the state’s success in managing sexual assault evidence kits, law enforcement and victim service agencies say at least 80% of cases still go unreported to law enforcement.

Free resources and help with sexual abuse are available 24/7 at RAINN.org. You can also call 800-856-HOPE (4673).