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Sexual-assault evidence kits stored in the Department of Criminal Investigations

Sexual-assault evidence kits are stored in the Department of Criminal Investigations building in Helena in this file photo.

Since launching at the start of September, about 280 people have registered to use a new statewide system to track evidence kits collected from sexual assault survivors, and nearly 550 kits are active in the system.

Four years ago the state Department of Justice did an informal inventory of untested kits around the state and found more than 1,400. Since then, with the help of a $1.9 million federal grant, all those kits have been submitted for DNA testing and the state crime lab is now validating those results.

Last week, Department of Justice program manager Justin Stolp said efforts to get law enforcement signed up in the tracking system have been more successful than outreach to the medical facilities where the kits are collected after a person has been assaulted.

To address that, Stolp said administrators of the tracking system have worked with the state Department of Labor and licensing boards to send out information to every licensed medical professional in Montana.

Montana is the first to create a statewide system for law enforcement, prosecutors and assault survivors to track what happens with evidence kits. The system was created under a bill that passed in the last legislative session. The law also lays out rights for people who have been assaulted and clarifies how sexual assault evidence collection kits are dealt with.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion said if there are problems getting enough people to use the system, the DOJ could explore making registration part of the professional licensing process or other options.

“Within six months, let’s figure out how many people we’ve got registered in a particular area and how many kits are registered. If we have a county where there are barely any kits but they are medium-size or large, are they going to need some training?” said Bennion. “Montana is at the forefront on creating a statewide tracking system. We are the first. That could mean that we have a few hiccups, but we’re excited about being a leader on this front and hopefully giving survivors more of a sense of justice."

By the time Montana started testing the backlog in 2016, there were 1,252 un-submitted kits. All those have been tested now and the state crime lab is validating results. The lab enters cases that are eligible onto the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

Of the results the lab has processed so far, 403 were CODIS-eligible. Another 156 were ineligible because of things like weak DNA results. Another 189 kits were negative, meaning biological material was not detected.

There have been 151 hits within the system, including one that resulted in the prosecution of a 2015 rape in Great Falls.

Kits that have been entered into the new tracking system are a mix of old kits from the backlog and new ones collected since then.

The department has notified 51 survivors that their kits have been tested and there are 11 pending notifications. Of the people contacted, 22 did not want to re-open their case. Eight met with law enforcement agencies and seven choose to re-open cases, including the one that resulted in the Great Falls prosecution.

The state Department of Justice is also preparing to send out a memo to law enforcement, county attorneys and medical facilities outlining the changes in the bill that created the tracking system. That includes clarifying rights for victims of assault.

Someone who has been assaulted and goes to a medical facility can request to have an evidence kit collected and report the assault to law enforcement. In that case, their kit must be submitted to law enforcement within 24 hours and tested in 30 days. The person assaulted must be provided with a number to monitor the kit using the new tracking system. Law enforcement cannot decide which kits will or will not be tested.

A person can also choose to have an evidence kit collected but not report the assault at that time. When that happens, the kit is sent to the state Office of Victim Services, where it will be held at least a year. 

Bennion said last week the memo is meant to clarify the new law for those who must follow it, as well as make clear to survivors they have a choice in what happens.

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“I think the memo will help clarify ... for medical facilities when you have a survivor that says ‘I don’t want this to be submitted to law enforcement,’ you don’t have to submit it to law enforcement and it goes to (the Office of Victim Services)," Bennion said. "We want to make sure there's no confusion.”

Bennion said the new law could generate more work for the state crime lab, which last week had just one DNA analyst, though two more had been hired and start soon.

“There’s no doubt that if we’re either encouraging or mandating that more kits come into the crime lab, that creates more work,” Bennion said.

The lab has purchased new equipment and implemented a new screening process to streamline operations. The Legislature this year also dedicated $250,000 to let the state lab contract with a private lab if it gets overwhelmed.

“That’s a safety valve there just in case more kits come in,” Bennion said. “We’re saying all kits submitted to law enforcement need to be tested, and we’re not sure exactly how many kits that means. We want the crime lab to be ready during this four-year period to be able to handle things.”

The law terminates in 2023, at which point Bennion said outcomes will be evaluated.

Bennion said a goal of testing the backlog of kits is to change the culture around reporting sexual assault and show survivors of assault that they will be listened to, Bennion said.

“I think we’ve made huge strides when it comes to shedding light on the issue of sexual assault and how to deal with survivors so that they feel some sense of justice and they’re being heard,” Bennion said.

“I think we are hopefully giving survivors more confidence to come forward with their stories and feel some sense of justice. Holding offenders accountable is another big piece of this. I think we’re going to see more of that going forward, where we reopen investigations and are making arrests and bringing people to justice.”

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