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Federal grant, legislation works to end sexual assault kit backlog in Montana

Federal grant, legislation works to end sexual assault kit backlog in Montana
Posted at 5:37 PM, Jul 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-01 19:37:42-04

HELENA — According to state numbers, in 2020 alone, there were nearly 1,500 victims of reported sexual assault in Montana. Legislation and a federal grant are helping ensure sexual assault kits from cases like those don’t build up.

When it comes to prosecuting rape and sexual assault cases, sexual assault kits are important.

“That’s the start,” Lewis and Clark County Attorney said of the kit, which comes in a small white box, filled with forms and envelopes for evidence.

Across the country, thousands of sexual assault kits sit untested, creating a backlog. End the Backlog, a Joyful Hearts Foundation program aimed at eliminating the backlog of untested sexual assault kits tracks the number of untested kits in cities and states across the country. According to End the Backlog, Washington has 4,489 untested sexual assault kits. To the east of Montana, in Minnesota, the program recorded 4,988 untested kits.

Thanks to the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, law enforcement and policy reforms, Montana is not facing the same problem.

“We have tested a total of 1,260 unsubmitted, untested kits,” Montana Department of Justice SAKI coordinator Kayla Bragg said. “Those kits range from 1995-2015.”

There is still work to be done in Montana—the state has a SAKI grant through 2023. The federally-funded grant will help collect untested kits from 2016-2019, and any partially tested kits.

Bragg explained partially tested kits means kits that have been tested, but not in a way that allows the DNA to be submitted to the National Combined DNA Index System.

“I honestly can’t tell you how many partially tested kits we might find, because it’s new here in Montana,” Bragg said. “Who knows the dates for these kits?”

No matter how old the kit, Gallagher said getting DNA tested and into CODIS is a big step.

“I think many—if not most—rapists have raped more than once,” Gallagher said. “I think just having the DNA profile developed in a searchable database is very important.”

Along with work funded by SAKI grant money, Senate Bill 52, passed in the 2019 legislative session, helps ensure another backlog does not build up in Montana.

Gallagher said all of this can be helpful when a case gets to the courtroom.

“It settles a lot of cases and keeps everybody from having to go through the trauma of a trial,” Gallagher said. “It lends to better, more frequent, timelier and better plea agreements.”

All of that, thanks to information collected in a small white sexual assault kit box.