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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Task Force Needs Funds, FBI To Test Rape Kits

Dr. Phil Kinsey, director of the Montana State Crime Lab, explains rape kit testing protocols to the task force.
Mara Silvers
Dr. Phil Kinsey, director of the Montana State Crime Lab, explains rape kit testing protocols to the task force on Friday.

The Sexual Assault Evidence Task Force set up by the attorney general last November met for the third time in Missoula last Friday. Dr. Phil Kinsey gave fellow task force members an idea of how labor-intensive and time-consuming it is to test so-called rape kits during a tour of the state crime lab.

There’s a backlog of 1,400 kits in Montana. The task force was set up to find ways to get them processed, so victims and prosecutors can decide how to proceed.

"This year we’re projected to have over 500 cases submitted. All of a sudden there’s been this giant increase, so we’re really struggling right now. And looking for again, outsourcing cases to help us get out from underneath the backlog," says Kinsey.

One piece of a mock sexual assault evidence packet on display at the state crime lab on Friday.
Credit Mara Silvers
One piece of a mock sexual assault evidence packet on display at the state crime lab on Friday.

Kinsey says the crime lab is struggling because it doesn’t have the staff or budget to deal with 1,400 kits. Which is why he asked the FBI to take on testing at least 300. And the bureau has agreed to do so.

"We’ll get all of those kits in the queue, ready to be worked, in the spring of next year. And although it might not be as quickly as we would have liked it to be, it’ll still be in good time in relation to the bigger project that we’re working on."

That still leaves the task force with 1,100 untested kits. Jon Bennion, a task force member from the state attorney general’s office, says the answer lies in the $2 million federal grant the group applied for in May.

"The other 1,100 will be farmed out to private laboratories. The grant money that we get will be used to fund that."

But for many task force members, thinking that getting funding to test the backlog solves the problem dangerously simplifies the issue. Task force member Robin Turner, the public policy and legal director with Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, says sexual assault survivors should have decision-making power.

"It concerns me that we have no protocol for notifying, for letting survivors know that you’re even doing this. That’s, that’s concerning to me. That we would do this testing without considering that. And so I’m more comfortable with more time, although I still — I want to talk a little more about — I don’t see the word ‘victim’ anywhere in this memo."

Having a victim-centered process is crucial to many members of the task force. But Rep. Kim Dudik, a task force member who represents Missoula in the Montana legislature, says funding remains the main issue.

"So let’s talk about the money — there’s not a lot of it. This coming session, revenues are down, and if we don’t get this grant, there’s a good chance that we will not have a lot of additional money like we want to do this."

With slim prospects for state funding and no news about the federal grant money the task force has applied for expected until September, they may be left with creating preventive measures to avoid future backlog.

"So what I think we need to do is think what we can do outside of money. What are we going to do to change the laws regarding submission, regarding testing, regarding what law enforcement should do and victim notification? Those are things that don’t cost anything. And it’s also something that we could probably get bipartisan support to pass," says Dudik.

The task force will likely meet again in October. Until then, the attorney general’s office is taking public comment through its website.

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