1,000 untested kits: Bill would require testing of all sexual assault kits in Montana

State Sen. Diane Sands of Missoula. (Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service)

(UM Legislative News Service) The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a bill that would require Montana crime labs to test all sexual assault kits collected from survivors.

Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, introduced Senate Bill 52 before the committee on Tuesday.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion said the new legislation comes after a report that uncovered more than 1,000 untested kits across the state. He said law enforcement had several reasons they didn’t send sexual assault kits to be tested, with the most common being dropped cases or shifting personnel. Bennion said testing these kits now — some of which are 23 years old — can still have value.

“If it’s just about improving the state’s response and learning from that process, that’s good enough,” Bennion said. “If it can give a survivor some closure, that’s worthwhile too.”

The proposed law would expire in 2023 and, according to the fiscal note on the bill, would cost the state a little less than $600,000.  Bennion said the time limit is to to smooth out the process. The request for funding comes from the concern that the State Crime Lab in Missoula, the only facility equipped to test the kits in the state, would not be able to process the new influx of sexual assault kits it would receive. Bennion said the lab would then outsource the testing to out-of-state facilities, costing about $600 for each kit.

Katy Osterloth, a sexual assault examiner in Bozeman, supports the bill, saying it puts survivors first. She said collecting data for the kits can be brutal for the victims, but it hurts more when the data goes untested.

“To have their whole body inspected and photographed and swabbed, and to have to go through this whole process is an incredibly courageous effort that these victims make,” she said.

Osterloth said testing sexual assault kits has led to catching repeat offenders. But, not very many victims agree to the invasive practice. So when they do, it’s a “golden opportunity” in catching serial predators and protecting potential victims.

“That opportunity is squandered when kits don’t move through the system,” she said.

Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.