Attorney General Bob Ferguson recently announced that law enforcement agencies in Washington would receive funding to expand storage space for sexual assault evidence kits.
According to a new grant program, 53 law enforcement agencies will be awarded $177,000 in federal grants to purchase refrigeration units to store evidence from sexual assault cases.
This funding will enable agencies to comply with legislation passed in 2020 requiring evidence from “unreported” sexual assault kits obtained at a hospital to be appropriately stored for up to 20 years. If reported to the police, the evidence must be maintained for 100 years.
The hope is that the funding and legislation will speed up the processing of sexual assault kits to facilitate investigations and prosecutions against sex criminals.
Sexual assault kits consist of evidence obtained by medical professionals — such as by a nurse at a hospital — from a sexual assault survivor. The kit is then sent to a crime lab to test the evidence for DNA that could help law enforcement solve a case.
The law came after years of backlogged evidence and a lack of prosecutions in sexual assault cases. The new law aims to speed up these investigations.
Sexual assault survivor Leah Griffin was a catalyst behind the law.
“Everything was broken about the system back in 2014. Everything from the way that hospitals interacted with survivors, to the police, to the prosecutors, to the very definitions in the law,” Griffin said. She then took her complaint to Representative Tina Orwall.
“We had a number of kits sitting on shelves for a number of reasons. One, maybe the lab didn’t have the capacity to test. Maybe the investigator didn’t choose to submit it,” Orwall explained.
Ferguson said that the expanded storage capacity would ensure evidence does not expire. He added that there was a lot of pressure from smaller agencies to increase their storage capabilities.
“Literally from Aberdeen to Yakima and about 50 jurisdictions in between all across the state, they raised their hands and said ‘Hey, we could use assistance.’ And so we’re providing those grant funds so they can get those storage units,” Ferguson told KING5.
The attorney general’s funds stem from a $3 million grant awarded in 2017 by the Department of Justice to facilitate the testing of backlogged kits. The office received another $2.5 million in 2019.
The attorney general’s office has used a portion of the funds to construct a crime lab in Vancouver to process a higher volume of DNA to enter into CODIS, the national DNA database.
The hope is that more DNA matches will lead to the reopening of cold cases and more prosecutions of sex crimes.