- Kelsey Hawes
Update Thursday, Feb. 25, 4:23 p.m.
Members of the Idaho House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee approved a bill Feb. 25 that would create new rules regarding the processing of rape kits, unanimously voting to advance the measure to the full House with a "do pass" recommendation.
The proposed legislation—the first of its kind in Idaho—would require local law enforcement to send rape kits to the Idaho State Police for processing unless the victim expresses otherwise, as well as create a processing timeline.
Bill sponsor Rep. Melissa Wintrow (D-Boise) said the measure is in the best interest of the pursuit of justice.
"If we are going to [prosecute] criminals, we have to have resources for law enforcement to do that job correctly," she said.
The bill's price tag—an estimated $222,300 in the first year and $207,300 annually—includes hiring an additional two workers to process DNA evidence collected in rape kits, creating a tracking mechanism for the kits as they move through processing and compiling an annual report to the Idaho Legislature. Wintrow said she has approached members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee about establishing a funding mechanism. She said while JFAC "has made no promises," she's optimistic.
Rape kits typically take more than two and a half hours to administer and include a physical examination of the alleged victim, a forensic interview, photographic injury documentation, evidence collection, and referral and discharge instructions. They can cost upwards of $3,000 and take 213 days to process.
Original Post Wednesday, Feb. 24, 4 a.m.
According to Rep. Melissa Wintrow (D-Boise), things have changed for the better when it comes to reporting and prosecuting sexual assaults, but Idaho still has a long way to go. Before being elected in 2014 to represent District 19 in the Idaho House, Wintrow was the first full-time director of what was the Women's Center—now, as of Feb. 16, renamed the Gender Equity Center—at Boise State University.
"I remember a case some years ago when a student, a victim of assault, came to a person who didn't take the report too seriously," Wintrow said. "That person suggested that the student and her alleged attacker get together and work it out. I don't think he was a bad man. I just think he didn't get it."
Wintrow said on too many occasions victims of sexual assault, particularly students, react by saying, "Oh my God, don't tell anybody."
When she first became director of the Boise State Women's Center in 2000, students had a place to go if they were victims of sexual assault, but "there was and still is so much that is unreported. Hopefully we're getting better at that."
Now, in her role as an Idaho lawmaker, Wintrow wants to deal with the issue of rape kits—particularly the piles of kits backlogged at Idaho State Police Forensic Services labs. A rape kit traditionally includes photographs of injuries or trauma and/or swabs from an alleged victim's body that may contain DNA evidence.
In a series of articles published in November 2015, the Idaho Press-Tribune reported dozens of rape kits, their contents untested, were sitting on shelves at Canyon County law enforcement offices. A review of the Nampa Police Department revealed 10 percent of rape kits collected had been submitted to an Idaho State Police lab for testing. Additionally, the Press-Tribune reported an unprocessed kit at an Idaho State Police forensics lab in Meridian had been on the shelf for more than 100 days.
"More importantly, there is nothing in Idaho statute right now that deals with the collection of evidence as rape kits. No requirements. No timelines. Nothing," Wintrow said. "We've got to change that as soon as possible, but I'm up against the clock to get this passed during the current session."
Wintrow stood before her colleagues Feb. 22 in the Idaho House State Affairs Committee, urging them to move forward her measure to change Idaho law regarding rape kits.
"Everybody's on board with this: the police chiefs association, prosecutors, Idaho State Police, victims' advocates," Wintrow told the committee.
As written, the measure would require all rape kits be tested unless a victim expresses a kit not be tested. Rape kits must be forwarded from local law enforcement agencies "as soon as reasonably practical, but not later than 30 days after obtaining the kit."
"If a local law enforcement agency says 'There's no crime,' the county prosecutor will have to sign off on that," said Wintrow. "It won't be just one person's judgment on this. We hope to improve accountability."
Wintrow said she made sure to add wording that if, for some reason, a rape kit wasn't sent to the lab within 30 days it "shall not affect the ability to prosecute" alleged assailants. Test kits must then be processed by the forensics labs within 90 days, sending analysis and the original evidence back to the investigating agency. Additionally, Idaho crime labs will issue an annual audit report to the Legislature, detailing the number of kits analyzed. The annual report from Idaho State Police would also be available to the public.
Wintrow told lawmakers the change would require approximately $200,000 from the state's general fund.
"I've talked to co-chairs of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee," she said, referring to the Legislature's budget-writing committee. "They've said there are no guarantees, but they were supportive."
Wintrow's bill is expected to go before the Idaho House Judiciary and Rules Committee for a formal public hearing on Thursday, Feb. 25.