10/03/2023 | News release | Distributed by Public on 10/03/2023 15:27
October 3, 2023
HELENA - The Montana Department of Justice was recently awarded a $2.1 million federal grant that will enable the agency to perform additional testing of sexual assault kits and conduct related cold case investigations, Attorney General Austin Knudsen announced today. The agency is one of just eight nationally to receive funding through the competitive process.
The grant will fund three positions within the Montana Department of Justice related to its Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI): a cold case investigator, a crime analyst, and a coordinator. It will also provide overtime resources for forensic scientists within the Department's State Crime Lab and renovation of kit storage for law enforcement agencies to preserve the integrity of the DNA evidence. Together, with the Attorney General's Office and the SAKI Task Force, the team will work to continue addressing the state's rape kit backlog and implementing a statewide plan to address sexual assault.
"We will intensify our efforts in solving sexual assault cases and bringing justice to survivors with this new funding, bolstering our Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, employing specialized personnel to investigate crimes, and upgrading evidence storage around the state," Attorney General Knudsen said. "Ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable and survivors can find healing is a top priority as we work to eliminate the rape kit backlog and reinforce our statewide strategy against sexual assault."
The SAKI team will identify kits unsubmitted and partially tested prior to 2001; test all those that remain unsubmitted and partially tested from a previous SAKI project; and assist in the renovation of existing law enforcement agencies' evidence storage facilities following the new law that sets a standard retention period of 75 years for sexual assault kits.
The new SAKI cold case investigator will conduct investigations from Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) hits and provide much needed case support to law enforcement agencies across the state. Local law enforcement has also received an increased caseload of cold cases from sexual assault kits that were generated from prior SAKI grant awards and do not always have the resources to prioritize cold case sexual assaults because of their current caseloads.
The grant money awarded by the United States Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance totals $2,125,000 and the project will run through September 2026.
The grant complements Attorney General Knudsen's efforts to crack down on violent sexual offenders and support survivors. During the 2023 legislative session, the Department of Justice brought and worked to pass two bills to address the issue.
House Bill 79, sponsored by Rep. Amy Regier of Kalispell, created a sexual assault response network program within the Department of Justice and a Sexual Assault Response Team Committee. By increasing access to exams conducted by sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs), the law will improve the response for sexual assault survivors and help prosecute offenders. A portion of the funds will be used to develop statewide training for SANEs.
House Bill 640, sponsored by Rep. Narrah Hastings of Billings, requires evidence from a sexual assault to be preserved for 75 years from the date of collection. Additionally, survivors may request to be notified before their sexual assault evidence kit and related contents are destroyed. The funds for upgrading storage will ensure Montana law enforcement agencies can meet the requirements of this law.