PROVO — A new extensive study of rape kits in Utah found that only 22.8 percent of kits collected by law enforcement between 2010 and 2013 were submitted to the Utah State Crime Lab for analysis within a year after being collected.
"The findings were not what I had hoped for and are concerning," the study's author, BYU professor Julie Valentine, said at a press conference Thursday to announce her findings.
"This is a public safety concern by not submitting these kits and testing them."
From 2010 to 2013, Valentine looked at the processing of 1,874 sexual assault kits in seven Utah counties — Salt Lake, Washington, Iron, Weber, Morgan, Davis and Box Elder. Those counties combined make up about 65 percent of the state's population and 40 percent of the state's law enforcement, she said.
Valentine said rape is the only crime in Utah that is higher than the national average. Yet, according to the study, states in the Midwest where similar studies were conducted submitted 58 percent of their rape kits for analysis, while Denver had an 89 percent rate of rape kit submissions.
According to the study, 62 percent of rape kits in Utah during that time were not submitted for analysis and remained in police custody, or were destroyed before ever being submitted.
Rape kits, or Code R kits, contain evidence collected during the investigation of a sexual assault. Such evidence can be gathered from a body, clothing or personal belongings. Labs can process them for DNA and evidentiary purposes.
One of the main findings of Valentine's study was that the frequency of sexual assault kits being submitted depended on where the assault occurred. Washington County, for example, submitted 18.3 percent of its rape kits to the crime lab within a year during the study's time period, while neighboring Iron County submitted 39.6 percent.
But the study also found that the reasons some rape kits were submitted and others weren't was hugely subjective.
"There was really no pattern," Valentine said.
In 55 percent of the reported rapes, drugs and alcohol were involved, according to the study. About 49 percent of victims reported losing consciousness, 33 percent reported memory loss, and 35 percent of victims disclosed they had some sort of mental illness — a shockingly high number, Valentine said.
In nearly 60 percent of the cases, the victim and suspect were previously acquainted. Only 29 percent of stranger rape cases were submitted, she said.
Valentine is concerned that some decisions not so submit rape kits are based on the perceived reliability of a victim.
Police agencies were 22 percent less likely to submit a kit if the victim was a drug user; 17 percent less likely if the victim showered after the assault; 17 percent less likely if the victim has physical or mental disabilities; and 16 percent less likely if the suspect was known to the victim, the study found.
The study did not look at the probability of a successful prosecution as a factor investigators weigh in considering cases for analysis.
Valentine also said she discovered gender-bias as part of the study, noting that rape kits were 46 percent more likely to be submitted if the victim was a male.
She said the study shows "justice denied for those victims that have sexual assault kits collected yet never submitted."
Valentine said the study also indicates there was justice inequity and "biases among the law enforcement agencies on the decision to submit the kit. …This is a very subjective process."
But she also pointed out that she does not believe law enforcement agencies are purposely ignoring some rape cases. Rather, there is a lack of understanding and training.
All rape kits should be submitted for testing, said Valentine, who admitted she didn't always feel that way. However, because of the possibility of repeat offenders and serial rapists, she believes all sex assault kits need to be sent to the crime lab.
Valentine is recommending a state law be passed that mandates standardized submission of sexual assault kits.
"This would remove the subjectivity that is absolutely apparent. And it would remove that justice inequity that is occurring between the different jurisdictions," she said.
The study is also calling for a tracking system to be created for the kits, as well as additional and better training for investigators across the state on how to interview rape victims so that issues such as memory loss and mental illness with the victim can be handled better. A pilot study on new ways to train was recently conducted with the West Valley City Police Department.
Valentine also believes the culture of victim blaming needs to end. Instead of looking at what a victim could have done to prevent being assaulted, the attitude of police and the public should be, "Look at what the suspect is doing," she said.
The study was data-driven and did not include any interviews with individual law enforcement agencies or prosecutors. Valentine called the study the "tip of the iceberg" and hopes additional studies will be conducted. Her study did not look at staff sizes or budgets of the law enforcement agencies in the seven counties nor whether such factors correlate with the number of rape kits the agencies submitted.
Utah legislators addressed the issue of rape kit backlogs in 2014 after the problem was revealed in several reports, including another study from Valentine, approving $2.8 million in funding to help ease the problem. Since then, Valentine said an additional 15.4 percent of kits have been submitted to the crime lab from late 2014 through 2015.
Contributing: Jed Boal