Legislation that could eliminate a backlog of more than 10,000 untested sexual assault kits in Washington awaits the governor’s signature, but funding that effort depends on final budget negotiations between the House and Senate.
Passed by the Legislature on Thursday, House Bill 1166 establishes a Survivor Bill of Rights, requires law enforcement to undergo specialized trauma-informed training and prohibits destruction of rape kits, some of which date back decades.
Under the Bill of Rights, survivors would no longer have to pay hospitals to test their own rape kits.
Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, and Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, co-sponsored the bill. It also would provide $13 million in funding to clear the backlog in two years and all newly submitted kits in 45 days. Currently, testing takes from 12 to 18 months.
The bill would support a high-throughput testing lab based out of Vancouver, Wash., a news release noted. But implementation is dependent on appropriation. The legislative session is scheduled to adjourn April 28.
The number of untested rape kits has increased as law enforcement agencies have turned in more kits. As of November the total was 6,460, but that had risen to 8,000 when the bill unanimously passed the House in early March.
“Survivors have really led the way on this work,” Orwall said in the release. “In passing this bill, the Legislature is finally telling survivors, ‘We hear you, we believe you, and we are working to fix this systemic failure.’”
The legislation would extend a task force working on the issue to 2021, and ask for a performance audit. The task force will work on storage and retention, so kits don’t “end up in random places,” Mosbrucker has said. Information from the tests is entered into a combined DNA index system, which often connects cases to suspects, she said.
“For too long, sexual assault survivors have waited for justice while thousands of sexual assault kits have collected dust on the back shelves of law enforcement storage facilities across Washington. Justice delayed is justice denied,” Mosbrucker said in the release.
“I greatly appreciate this bipartisan effort led by Rep. Orwall to get these kits tested and finally bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Orwall has sponsored legislation that mandates testing of all current and backlogged rape kits and established the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Legislative Task Force in 2015. In 2016, Washington became the first state in the nation to create an online statewide tracking system for survivors to check testing status of a kit.
Survivors are thankful for Orwall’s efforts.
“For decades, thousands of sexual assault survivors have been ignored while the physical evidence we provided languished on shelves,” said Leah Griffin, who has been the lead survivor voice on the SAFE Task Force.
“It’s clear Washington now recognizes that failure, and takes an important step to ensure survivors’ voices are heard, our trauma is acknowledged, and our cases will be investigated in a thorough and timely manner.”