New Mexico lawmakers address backlog of untested rape kits

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- An estimated 5,000 untested rape kits are in New Mexico's crime labs and warehouses, and it could take five years to work through the backlog, state officials said Monday.

New Mexico Public Safety Secretary Gregory Fouratt told the Legislature's Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee during a hearing in Santa Fe that about 75 percent of the kits that haven't been tested stem from Bernalillo County sheriff and Albuquerque police cases. About 31 law enforcement agencies in the state - most of them representing more rural areas - have not responded to the state's initial request for the numbers of untested kits in the agencies' jurisdictions, he said.

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New Mexico lawmakers address backlog of untested rape kits
A sexual assault evidence kit is logged in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015. The new attention to sexual assault kits stems from a combination of factors: the persistence of advocacy groups, investigative media reports, the willingness of rape survivors to speak out and political support from statehouses up to the White House. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Instructions sit next to pipettes at a station in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015. Before DNA, rape kits could be tested for blood group typing, but that was nowhere as definitive and the evidence could broadly exclude or include a suspect _ if one had been identified. DNA proved to be a turning point, but Houston Assistant Police Chief Mary Lentschke notes that police still faced two big obstacles: a shortage of both money and crime lab staff. It has cost $500 to $1,500 to test and analyze each kit. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Forensic analyst India Henry examines cotton swabs from a sexual assault evidence kit in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015. A dramatic shift is taking hold across the country as police and prosecutors scramble to process these kits and use DNA matches to track down sexual predators, many of whom attacked more women while evidence of their crimes languished in storage. Lawmakers, meanwhile, are proposing reforms to ensure this doesn't happen again. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy speaks during an interview about rape kits in Detroit on Monday, April 20, 2015. On the the backlog of rape kit testing, she says, "It shows that we, as this country, do not respect rape victims to the extent that we respect other victims." (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy looks at documents in Detroit on Monday, April 20, 2015. Her office is working with the Michigan Women's Foundation and the Detroit Crime Commission to raise money to complete the backlog of rape kit testing and investigation and bring suspects to trial. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Vials of evidence in a sexual assault case are labeled and sorted in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015. In some cases, it's simply too late for justice because statutes of limitations have expired. In others, investigators may have to wade through old, often incomplete, police files, search for witnesses and suspects, confront fading memories and persuade survivors to reopen painful chapters of their lives. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Forensic analyst Karen Gincoo checks a tray of evidence vials from rape kits in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015. In Houston, authorities recently cleared a backlog of nearly 6,700 kits that included cases dating back to the 1980s. The project, which cost about $6 million, turned up 850 matches in a national DNA database. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
This Thursday, April 2, 2015 photo shows an evidence bag from a sexual assault case in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston. Legislators in more than 20 states are considering _ and in some cases, passing _ laws that include auditing all kits and deadlines for submitting and processing DNA evidence. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Vials of evidence from rape kits are labeled and sorted for testing in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015. In resurrecting old crimes, investigators have detected an alarming pattern: Many rapists are repeat offenders. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MAY 31, 2014 AND THEREAFTER - A small piece of cotton from a swab in a sexual assault evidence kit is placed into a vial for testing in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
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The cost for processing each kit can amount to as much as $4,000, and officials say about $8 million is needed over a roughly five-year period to make progress in diminishing the backlog.

"This is important, expensive science," Fouratt said. "We do not have the scientific workspace to keep up with this state's current forensic needs."

The hearing on New Mexico's untested rape kits comes as numerous states attempt to address how to decrease their backlogs.

DNA evidence such as pieces of hair or swabbings from a victim's body are collected for the kits, and they can help investigators solve a crime or possibly link a solved case to other crimes. Test results are entered into a database that can lead officials to discover whether an assailant is a serial offender.

It can take hours to collect evidence after a crime is reported with a victim's participation. Examinations that collect evidence for kits are typically lenghty and invasive.

"Part of the equation (of the justice system) is that when a woman or a man or a child couragously comes forward and has this examination done on him or her to collect evidence, he or she should be able to expect justice," said Julianna Koob of the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault programs.

Koob is advocating that an additional $1 million be added to the state budget to fund crisis centers, which work with victims in more current cases.

Some of the cases in Albuquerque police's backlog date back to the late 1980s - a time when protocal would have called for many of the rape kits to be discarded, said John Krebsbach, the crime lab director for Albuquerque police. "It's something that truly, truly needs to be taken care of," he said.

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