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I-Team: University of Louisville professor tracing origins of rape kit backlog, looking for solution

Posted: 6:25 PM, Oct 16, 2018
Updated: 2018-10-17 01:14:00Z

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- As director of the Kentucky State Police Central Crime Laboratory, Laura Sudkamp helped Attorney General Andy Beshear's office end the state's decade-old backlog of 3,400 untested rape kits in 2017. Two of those tests have resulted in indictments, and Beshear said he believes many more could be on the way.

However, some newly submitted kits still languish in the lab for more than a year before analysts complete the necessary testing that would allow criminal cases against the perpetrators to move forward. Tracie Jackson, a Northern Kentucky woman who submitted a rape kit in January, said she'd been told not to expect results until May 2019. 

According to Sudkamp, the delay in processing has to do with understaffing at the central lab. She simply doesn't have enough employees to analyze every rape kit within the 90-day target timeframe, and it's difficult to attract more.

"We're having a hard time retaining folks because they can go to another job or another state and, trained, make at least $20,000 more, depending on where they go,” she said.

Beshear's office gave the lab a cash infusion of $4.5 million in 2016 and on Oct. 8 requested a full accounting of how it had been spent since then . If money is still the issue, he said, the next state budget will provide more.

That's not the only reason untested rape kits accumulate, however. With funding from Beshear's office, University of Louisville assistant professor Bradley Campbell in 2017 began a research project to trace the factors that created Kentucky's 3,400-kit backlog and prevent it from happening again.

Although he said the project is in too early a stage to draw definitive conclusions, it's clear the failures were multi-faceted.

"It's not just law enforcement,” he said. "It's not just a crime lab issue. It's not just a prosecutorial issue. It's a system issue where we didn't always prioritize sexual assault cases, and we didn't necessarily know in the past how valuable these kits can be to investigations and getting violent criminals off the streets.”

He said he believes recent legal reform and cultural changes have helped create an environment in which victims are shamed less for reporting.

The Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence (SAFE) Act, passed in 2016, mandated all kits be tested, all law enforcement officers be given new sexual assault response training and all rape kits collected in hospitals be stored for at least one year after the incident, even if the victim initially declined to file a report.

Gretchen Hunt, executive director of the Office of Victims' Advocacy within the Kentucky Attorney General's Office, said she's been heartened to see more kits turned in and more incidents reported since the SAFE Act passed. 

"What we want victims and survivors to know, at the core we are being victim-centered,” she said. "What we want victims to know going forward is that mistakes were made in the past, but we are changing how we do things now.”

Change can't come soon enough for Jackson and others like her.

"Even if it doesn't happen in my case, if it helps someone else's case get processed sooner so they don't go through this,” she said. "I just want the system to be fixed."

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