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Rape kits stored in the Department of Criminal Investigations

Rape kits are stored in the Department of Criminal Investigations building in Helena in this file photo.

Under Attorney General Tim Fox, Montana’s Department of Justice has made important strides to address the disturbing number of sexual assault evidence kits — commonly known as “rape kits” — that are never processed, leaving untold numbers of offenders free to rape again.

The kits consist of evidence collected during a sexual assault forensic exam, and can play a pivotal role in identifying and convicting rapists.

Since 2017, the state has been diligently working through a backlog of some 1,400 kits, despite limited resources. And since 2015, a special task force, with crucial input from its Missoula members, has been closely studying the issue and offering recommendations.

Now, the 2019 Legislature is being asked to take the logical next steps toward further improving Montana’s ability to use these kits to catch serial offenders.

The Montana Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Tuesday morning on Senate Bill 52, introduced by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, who is also a vice-chair on the committee, at the request of the Justice Department. With no opposition, the bill was swiftly passed from the committee on a 10-0 vote.

SB 52 seeks to:

  • Create a process for creating, collecting and delivering rape kits.
  • Require health facilities to ask for a patient’s consent before turning over a kit to law enforcement.
  • In cases where a victim does not provide consent, allow a kit to be turned over anonymously.
  • Set out timelines for kits to be provided to law enforcement and for testing.
  • Require that kits be stored by the Office of Victim Services for a minimum of one year.
  • Direct the Justice Department to create a confidential statewide tracking system for rape kits.

Montana has long lacked any comprehensive system of tracking rape kits in the state, leaving it up to different local agencies to follow their own protocols for processing, storing and eventually destroying them. Thus, many kits were never provided to the State Crime Lab for testing, for reasons known only to the agencies that opted not to deliver them.

Notably, in 2015, a Montana man was charged with felony sexual intercourse without consent (Montana’s legal term for rape) thanks to a rape kit collected the previous year. The man was being held by police in Billings on other felony charges when his DNA was matched with evidence stored in the rape kit, lending stark evidence of the usefulness of these kits — and of the injustice created by not processing them.

That same year, Fox established the nine-member Sexual Assault Evidence Task Force to bring together diverse experts, including legislators, victim advocates and leaders in law enforcement. Among them were Missoula Rep. Kim Dudik and the public policy and legal director for the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, who also lives in Missoula.

Rape kits that contain DNA evidence can be complicated and time-consuming to process, requiring advanced techniques and expertise. From 2013 through 2018, due in large part to the hundreds of backlogged rape kits, the State Crime Lab has been laboring under an 86 percent increase in sex assault cases.

SB 52 would help streamline the process for handling these kits and sharing essential DNA information, so that no backlog ever accumulates again. Its reforms are necessary measures to help improve Montana’s response to sexual assaults — and ensure justice for victims of rape.

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The Missoulian

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