HELENA — Authorities across Montana have more than 1,400 rape kits — some dating back to 1995 — that remain unprocessed because they have not been submitted to the state's crime lab for testing.
The question is: Why?
"There are 1,400 rape kits hanging out there, and we don't know enough about these 1,400. And are they indeed a problem?" said Rep. Christy Clark, R-Choteau, a member of the nine-member task force assembled by Attorney General Tim Fox last fall, after a national uproar over a backlog of untested rape kits across the country.
The panel, known as the Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Task Force, convened for the first time Tuesday to begin its work in drafting guidelines that law enforcement agencies can use in their handling of DNA evidence.
Fox said the state does not have a backlog at its forensic laboratory like many other states, but he said it was important to account for all untested rape kits and to better understand why those kits weren't being sent to the lab for forensic analysis.
The attorney general's office said all but one of Montana's 109 law enforcement agencies submitted an inventory of untested rape kits. Nearly half of the kits that the agencies did not submit for testing were collected during the past five years, according to the survey.
According to an informal survey conducted during the state's inventory, some of the DNA evidence was not sent to the state crime lab because victims declined to press charges or preliminary evidence indicated the lack of a criminal act. The task force hopes to delve deeper into those reasons.
"We still need a little more information so we can best address this issue going forward," said Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion, who chaired Tuesday's task force meeting. "It's important for people to understand that some of these case may still be active, so they aren't just sitting in refrigerators in evidence rooms."
Last year, the state's crime lab handled 182 sex-related cases — the largest number in the past 10 years, according to data presented to the task force on Tuesday.
According to some estimates, hundreds of thousands of DNA evidence collected across the nation during sexual assault investigations have gone untested, partly because of the cost. Last fall, the White House said it would contribute $41 million as part of a $79 million partnership to clear 70,000 rape kits sitting in laboratories and evidence rooms across the United States.
Montana hopes to get some of that money to help localities handle their untested kits.
For now, state and local authorities have not decided what to do with the untested kits identified by the recent inventory.