- Associated Press - Thursday, April 6, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah crime lab officials are optimistic they can reduce a backlog as they work to process over 500 sexual assault evidence kits. They hope to speed up the time it takes to test the kits, after lawmakers approved a measure last month that sends more than $1 million to go toward this effort.

Last year, a study released by Mormon-owned Brigham Young University found that Utah is so far behind in processing rape kits that only about one-third of the samples taken from 2010-2013 had been tested by the end of 2015. It also discovered that law enforcement takes about 60 percent longer than other parts of the country to send rape evidence to crime labs.

Jay Henry, of Utah’s department of public safety crime laboratory, said on Thursday that the new measure has allowed the lab to start the process of hiring a handful of new forensic scientists to cut down on the time testing takes.

Unless law enforcement have determined that a kit needs to be analyzed urgently because of a looming court case or a public safety threat, the evidence can take more than a year to be processed, said Henry. His goal is to reduce that time to only 30 days.

The measure approved during the 2017 session requires law enforcement to send sexual assault kits to the lab within 30 days. Bill sponsor Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, has said that the requirement would not take effect until 2018 in order to give the state crime lab time to work through the kits it currently has.

The law also requires that by next year the lab must launch an online tracking system for sexual assault evidence kits, so that victims can keep tabs on the status of their case.

“That type of infrastructure will be great for the healing of survivors and for making sure the process moves quicker,” said Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Bitton called the law a “landmark step” when it comes to fighting sexual violence in the state.

The proposal was expected to send about $2 million toward improving the sexual assault evidence processing, but legislators opted to approve only half that amount, said Henry. He said he expects them to reconsider the funding next year once they see how the program is doing.

Bitton said the funding is enough to help make the program successful, and that it “will go a long long way in ensuring that every victim and every survivor gets justice.”

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