Utah Department of Public Safety, other organizations focus efforts on making up for lost time as House Bill 200 aims to help prevent future backlogs
Story by MALLORY BELL
While Salt Lake City has taken the lead in Utah to clear its backlog of untested rape kits, the rest of the state has a lot of catching up to do.
As part of a nationwide effort to improve sexual assault investigations by gathering and analyzing crime evidence and other data, Utah launched an initiative in October 2017 to tackle the issue.
Despite funding from New York City’s District Attorney’s Office to help start the program, Utah still lags far behind other states in testing rape kits for DNA evidence.
The process of testing a rape kits DNA evidence takes up to two years for non-priority cases in Utah, while other states can complete the process within 30 days.
Up to this point, Utah as a state has received three grants for the initiative. One from the district attorney office in New York, and the other two from the nationwide Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, or SAKI, program. The plan is to now request another SAKI fund and see how quickly and efficiently agencies in the state can complete the backlogged kits. The Utah Department of Public Safety is in charge of helping all agencies across the state complete the process correctly.
SAKI is a nationally acknowledged project beginning with New York District Attorney’s office back in 2003. New York decided to then distribute the remaining funds throughout the nation.
Since the project’s beginning in Utah, the Department of Public Safety along with Utah law enforcement have been able to send thousands of kits to private crime labs to expedite the process. The initiative is moving forward in the Salt Lake County, and now officials are trying to help the rest of Utah get up to speed.
“Not all agencies in Utah have currently submitted all of their backlogged kits so far,”said Lauren DeVries, victim advocate for the Utah Department of Public Safety. “We actually have to do an inventory of the entire state to see how many kits each agency has.”
DeVries said there are 2,200 kits that have currently been submitted and a total 2,700 kits throughout the state of Utah. To test the remaining 500 kits they first need to be located, and accounted for, which requires training, new guidelines and additional employees — all of which calls for more time and funds. The Utah Department of Public Safety hopes to receive a grant that will cover the majority of costs for the remainder of the project.
In the past, the kits and evidence of a sexual assault case were not viewed as important in solving the crime. The physical gathering of evidence became obsolete as the testimonies of the perpetrator and victim were often not consistent, causing these cases to be ignored. Nonconsensual contact can be difficult to determine, meaning these cases were not pursued for practical reasons.
“There have been a lot of kits that have been destroyed,” DeVries said, explaining that if police thought the case wouldn’t be prosecuted they’d throw them out to make room for other evidence. “There is value in submitting these kits, and I don’t think we realized the value in it, until recently.”
Now that the backlog testing is mostly completed, the state is looking for ways to implement major improvements into how sexual assault is investigated.
Changes in police departments have been mandated to ensure that the the kits are consistently being tested to prevent future backlog. Changes include law-enforcement training, and putting new processes in place for the victims’ rights and kit testing. House Bill 200, which goes into effect on July 1, will require every kit to be tested within a specified amount of time. It will also allow the victim to track their kit and be informed of each step of the testing.
State Senator Todd Weiler, R-Bountiful who sponsored the Senate version of House Bill 200, described the law as “a way that the state can show that we care about domestic violence, we care about sexual assault. … The victims that do come forward will be treated with respect and taken seriously.”
Current amendments aim to avoid future backlogs and problems with the kits. Lawmakers like Weiler want victims to feel like they are being heard and ultimately see justice through the use of collected evidence.
Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault have been involved with SAKI along the way and have played a big part in writing the bill.
Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is excited about the bill and the partnership it brings.
“I think one of the most important pieces of House Bill 200 was that it provided new resources to law enforcement,” he said. “Law enforcement in many cases have been leaders in this work to move SAKI forward.”
Limited funds in the past presented various issues, such as understaffing of specialists who process assault kits, and training for current employees, which contributed to the backlog. Kits collected before 2018 have been sent directly to a private crime lab which has increased both process efficiency and fund expenditures.
With the passage of House Bill 119 and House Bill 200 crime labs have seen an increase in funding that law enforcement and crime labs receive.
“It was actually a two- to three-year effort to get more funding to hire more of the forensic scientists who actually go through and do the testing on the rape kits. We’ve also opened a new crime lab with more space,” Weiler said. “We just needed more warm bodies of qualified people to actually do the testing of the kits.”
The Department of Public Safety, Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Utah State Senate all hope that these changes will help victims see that concerted efforts are being made with their individual cases. Officials also want it known that change is coming to help future cases.
“I don’t know that things will change over night with this bill taking effect in July, but what I would say is, this is the final piece of funding that we needed, to guarantee that moving forward all of the backlog of rape kits will be wiped out and that they will be tested in a timely manner in the future,” Weiler said.
For more information on the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, please visit:
Victims that are looking for help and resources can turn to UCASA and find details at