Sexual Assault Kit Initiative: Alaska making progress

Sexual Assault Kit Initiative: Alaska making progress

Pamela Cravez

This article also appears in the Spring 2018 print edition.

State of Alaska Sexual Assault Evidence Kit
State of Alaska Sexual Assault Evidence Kit

In February 2018, Ohio finished testing nearly 14,000 sexual assault kits (SAKs), also known as rape kits, which had previously been untested. What began in 2011 with a special initiative from the Ohio Attorney General to address untested kits resulted seven years later in 300 serial offenders linked to 1,125 crimes, mostly rapes, in Ohio. Along the way, policies were developed to submit all rape kits to the crime laboratory for DNA testing, to identify offenders, and ensure that relevant DNA would be included in the national database.

It is estimated that there may be more than 200,000 untested sexual assault kits throughout the country (Campbell et al., 2017).

Initiatives to test these kits have resulted in solving crimes, identifying serial rapists, exonerating the innocent, providing DNA to the national Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) for use throughout the country, and establishing policies for future testing of sexual assault kits.

In 2015, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) began the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), providing grant support and technical assistance to state and local jurisdictions to support a coordinated, victim-centered approach to both deal with untested sexual assault kits and create sustainable future policies to deal with sexual assault cases.

Alaska SAKI

Figure 1. Unsubmitted sexual assault kits by department. About 94% of sexual assault kits belonged to 7 agencies: Anchorage Police Department 53%; Alaska State Troopers, 22%; Juneau Police Department, 6%; Fairbanks Police Department, 5%; Nome Police Department, 2%; Ketchikan Police Department, 2%; North Slope Police Department, 2%; All others, 8%. Source:  Monegan, 2017 (Alaska Department of Public Safety).In 2016, the Alaska Department of Public Safety (DPS) received a $1.1M three-year SAKI grant to identify kits that had not been submitted to the crime lab for testing and, with the assistance of a group of statewide stakeholders/experts, develop victim-centered policies and procedures for processing. A second, $450,000 grant in 2017 supports a prosecutor, cold case investigator, and UAA Justice Center researcher. The Justice Center researcher will look at the correlation between characteristics of unsubmitted cases and case processing decisions with the goal of supporting the creation of data-driven public policies (Monegan, 2017: 3).

Unsubmitted and untested sexual assault kits collected by Troopers have been identified. There are 764 unsubmitted kits of which 700 are victim kits and the focus of SAKI. The cases have been digitized, and by the summer of 2018 all kits will have been sent to a private lab out of state for testing.

“We are only focusing on kits collected by Troopers,” said Randi Breager, criminal justice planner for the Alaska State Crime Detection Laboratory. Breager is co-site coordinator for SAKI with Major Bryan Barlow. “This will serve as a pilot project for law enforcement statewide,” Breager added.

After DPS received SAKI funding, the Alaska State Legislature passed SB55, a bill requiring a statewide SAK inventory, a plan to address untested kits statewide and a plan to prevent a future backlog.

In November 2017, a statewide SAK inventory showed a total of 3,484 untested sexual assault kits, including untested DPS kits. The highest number of kits, 1,823, are held by the Anchorage Police Department.

Figure 2. Unsubmitted sexual assault kits by type. 3,484 previously unsbumitted sexual assault kits were inventoried by 46 law enforcement agencies. By type: Victim, 2,979; Suspect, 391; Anonymous victim, 114. Source:  Monegan, 2017 (Alaska Department of Public Safety).Figures 1 and 2 show the breakdown of unsubmitted SAK statewide and how many of them are identified victim kits as compared to offender or anonymous.

SAKI and the statewide project required under SB55 are parallel and will complement each other, according to Breager. Developing and implementing policy change is at the heart of both projects. “The expertise of our statewide working group, including a commander of the Anchorage Police Department, will guide the creation of a template that will be helpful for all,” Breager said.

Why kits weren’t tested

Most kits in Alaska were not tested because it was determined that DNA evidence was not needed or not necessary for prosecution. This would result if a case were declined for prosecution, rested on an issue of consent, or had already been adjudicated. A kit could also have been collected outside the time frame (Monegan, 2017: 4).

Other reasons police may not have submitted a kit for testing could be because an offender had not yet been identified. Prior to the mid-1990s, when the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) was established, police needed to have a reference sample from a suspect for comparison to the crime scene. Even after CODIS, police may not have submitted kits for testing because they did not think it would be useful.

Systemic issues such as budget cuts, lack of written policies and protocols for submission, and lack of training have also been cited (Bettinger-Lopez, 2016; Hanson, 2017).

What’s happening now?

Alaska changed protocol in January 2018 requiring all newly collected SAKS be sent to the Alaska State Crime Detection Laboratory (SCDL) for testing or storage. If testing is not requested, an explanation will be required in writing.

Although there will be ongoing policy and protocol recommendations from Alaska SAKI, a final report is not due until June 2019. Challenges identified in the recent DPS report to the Alaska State Legislature include the availability of resources for systematizing collection, implementing a tracking system and retention of DNA and evidence throughout the state.

Decisions will also need to be made regarding the testing of additional untested kits identified throughout the state and not part of SAKI. Another question is whether Alaska will require all kits to be tested in the future.

Addressing untested kits and developing future protocols is complex. Through Alaska’s SAKI grant, DPS and its working group of experts and stakeholders are receiving training and assistance in establishing “effective and sustainable practices for collecting and processing forensic evidence, investigating and prosecuting sexual assault cases, and supporting survivors of sexual assault” (www.sakitta.org).

Pamela Cravez is editor of the Alaska Justice Forum.

Table 1. SAKI Working Group Members. Michelle Collins, Crime Lab, Forensic Biology Supervisor; Cheryl Duda, Crime Lab, DNA Technical Manager; Angie Ellis, North Slope Police Department, Forensic Nurse; Taylor Winston, Office of Victims' Rights, Executive Director; Keeley Olson, Standing Together Against Rape, Executive Director; Brad Myrstol, UAA Justice Center, Director; Bill Miller, Anchorage Police Department, Captain; Bryan Barlow, Alaska State Troopers, Major/Deputy Director; Michael Henry, Alaska State Troopers, Sergeant; Randi Breager, Crime Lab, Criminal Justice Planner; Barb Amarok, Bering Sea Women's Group, Executive Director; Debbie Demientieff, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium — Behavioral Health, Special Project Coordinator; Jenna Gruenstein, Department of Law, Assistant District Attorney; Meggie Reinholdt, Council on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, Program Coordinator; Allison Hanzawa, Department of Public Safety, Special Assistant to the Commissioner; Suki Miller, Office of the Governor, Policy Advisor/Building a Safer Alaska Coordinator; Patricia Liss, Alaska State Troopers, DVSA/SAKI Project Assistant.

References

Alaska State Legislature. (2017). Senate Bill 55: Omnibus Crime/Corrections (SB 55). 30th Alaska Legislature. Chapter 13 SLA 17. (introduced 10 Feb 2017; signed into law 22 Jun 2017.)

Bettinger-Lopez, Carrie. (15 Mar 2016). “The Sexual Assault Kit Initiative: An Important Step toward Ending the Rape Kit Backlog.” The White House — Obama Archives.

Campbell, Rebecca; Feeney, Hannah; Fehler-Cabral, Giannina; Shaw, Jessica; & Horsford, Sheena. (2015). “The National Problem of Untested Sexual Assault Kits (SAKs): Scope, Causes, and Future Directions for Research, Policy, and Practice.” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 18(4): 363–376 (Oct 2017).

Hanson, Alan R. (5 Oct 2017). “National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Helps Solve Crimes.” OJP Blog. Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

Monegan, Walt (1 Nov 2017). Letter to Pete Kelley, President of the Alaska Senate and Bryce Edgmon, Speaker of the Alaska House, reporting results of inventory of statewide sexual assault kits (SAKs). Alaska Department of Public Safety.

SAKI. (2018). “The Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.” (website). Retrieved 9 Mar 2018.

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