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Health, Science & Environment

‘Justice For The Survivor’: Utah Clears Its Backlog Of Untested Sexual Assault Kits

Photo of a man standing in front of a sign that reads "Utah Department of Public Safety: Bureau of Forensic Services."
Sonja Hutson
Utah Crime Lab Director Jay Henry stands in the state’s department of public safety building. The lab has officially cleared its sexual assault kit backlog.

Utah public safety officials announced Thursday that they cleared their backlog of 11,193 sexual assault kits dating back to 2015. The effort was spurred by a 2017 law that required all kits to be tested by the state crime lab.

Inside the crime lab in Taylorsville, a forensic scientist wearing a white gown, gloves, and blue disposable mask, cut open a box that contains swabs from someone who has been sexually assaulted. Crime Lab Director Jay Henry looked on from behind a pane of glass.

“So right now she'll be inventorying the kit,” Henry said, “and trying to figure out what she got.”

This was stop one on the lab’s “assembly line” of analyzing the samples to try to find a DNA match for the perpetrator. In fact, over the past five years, 1,979 suspects have been identified through searches in the national DNA database and more than 5,000 profiles were entered.

Henry’s lab switched to this system of kit processing as part of its effort to clear the state’s backlog, a feat officials announced they accomplished Thursday morning, after about three years. The effort was spurred by a 2017 law that required all kits to be tested by the state crime lab.

“It feels great,” Henry said. “We've talked about [it for] so long, we’re like, ‘Are we really done?’ And we're just going to have a significant burden off our shoulders and that’ll allow us to do even better and greater work as we move forward.”

The law gave the lab funding to hire more workers. But when it passed, the state Legislature only awarded the lab $1.2 million — about half of what the bill requested. In 2019, lawmakers gave the effort another $500,000.

That lower funding is one reason why Henry said the lab didn’t meet its original goal of clearing the backlog by the end of 2018.

“Our process would have been in place a little bit sooner because we would have been able to hire more people, get them trained in that, and we would have a greater capacity,” he said.

Henry estimated the average processing time for a sexual assault kit is now 90 days, and his goal is to get it down to 30 days.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored the bill in 2017. She said clearing the backlog is about justice for sexual assault survivors.

“When you have to go through this whole process of reliving it and getting examined and hoping that that exam will justify what happened to you, although I always believe a victim, it just ensures that people are going to take this seriously,” Romero said.

She said it’s important not to cut crime lab funding in order to prevent another backlog. But now she’s focused on changing laws around consent with hopes to prevent sexual assault in the first place.

Updated: September 10, 2020 at 3:07 PM MDT
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