BISMARCK — The North Dakota Legislature is considering a proposal to create a tracking system for sexual assault kits, a move experts say could encourage more survivors to come forward by increasing confidence in the evidence process.
In a 5-0 vote this week, the Senate Human Services Committee recommended that senators pass Senate Bill 2281. The proposed legislation would allow the state crime lab to develop and manage an electronic tracking system to follow sexual assault evidence collection kits sent to law enforcement agencies across the state.
“We’re never quite sure what happens to them,” Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said during a hearing Tuesday, Feb 2.
If the bill passes in the legislature and is signed into law by the governor, North Dakota would join a growing coalition of states creating tracking systems for sexual assault kits. The state will get $255,000 for the 2021-2023 biennium from the federal government to fund the effort.
After that, it will cost about $25,000 a year to keep the system going, which Stenehjem said in a Wednesday interview with The Forum is a small amount to pay for a needed program.
Along with law enforcement, sexual assault survivors will be able to track the progress of testing for their kits through a secure system, Stenehjem said. The system won't be open to the public, he added.
Sexual assault survivor advocates have pushed for tracking systems nationwide after media reports in recent years found thousands of kits were not being tested in the U.S. Some were lost or destroyed before the statute of limitations expired.
The federal government started offering funding to create tracking systems in 2017.
In North Dakota, 488 kits have not been submitted to the crime lab for various reasons, said Robin Quinn, the state crime lab director. Some of those reasons include a victim not wanting to pursue charges, Stenehjem said.
They may change their mind, or new evidence may develop, he added. That’s why law enforcement agencies in North Dakota required to keep kits for up to seven years, which is the statute of limitations for a sexual assault case, said West Fargo Police Sgt. Tim Runcorn in citing a recently passed law.
“We send in all of our kits,” he said.
Kits may be destroyed if no charges are pursued before the statute of limitations runs out. However, Stenehjem said he believes every kit should be tested, as evidence could help solve other cases or vindicate an innocent person, even in other states.
“They should be tested,” he said. “That is the point of the bill.”
Police departments in Fargo and West Fargo don't destroy kits without permission from the state's attorney's office.
Kits are sent to hospitals, clinics, law enforcement and adult abuse and rape centers, but it is up to the agencies to send the kits to the lab, said Michelle Locke, a Jamestown Regional Medical Center registered nurse and the coordinator for the hospital’s sexual assault nurse examiner program.
The hospital used six kits last year, though the Jamestown Police Department had 25 reports of sexual assault, Locke said. The Fargo Police Department used 52 kits in 2020 but had 210 reports, the agency said. All of its kits were sent to the state lab, it said.
There are various reasons why a kit might not be used, Runcorn and Locke said. Some cases are not reported until weeks or even years after the assault, Runcorn said. Hospitals typically have a three-day window to collect evidence, Locke added.
Collecting evidence could be essential to a case, Runcorn said.
Rape is an underreported crime for a number of reasons, Locke said. Having a tracking system may give sexual assault survivors more confidence about the kits being processed successfully, which could encourage more victims to come forward sooner, she said.
“The victim would have a little more control and proof that things are happening or that it’s getting done and not just wondering what’s going on,” she said.