CHARLESTON, W.Va. — June 5 is the take effect date for a new law designed to reduce processing times for DNA lab tests in West Virginia, especially when it comes to cases of sexual assault.

“This is a great first step for West Virginia,” said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation.

“Anytime a state addresses this issue — in any way — is a positive step forward.”

Since 2010, ending the rape kit backlog nationally has been a priority for her organization.

There are 2,400 untested rape kits pending in West Virginia, according to the latest available estimate from Joyful Heart.

However, Knecht said there is really no comprehensive national data on the nature and exact scope of the rape kit backlog in the Mountain State across the U.S.

In addition to limited resources, she told MetroNews there are many reasons for the backlog.

“One is lack of training about DNA and DNA databases and how important they are to solving crimes, in particular sexual assault crimes,” said Knecht.

“There’s also bias and misunderstanding about sexual violence and how it impacts survivors.”

Under the new law, West Virginia State Police will be able to contract with Marshall University’s Forensic Science Center to process lab work related to the testing of offender samples for the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

DNA testing in criminal paternity cases, criminal casework and identification of human remains is also included in the collaboration with Marshall.

The legislation sets parameters for when law enforcement officers and correctional officers can use reasonable force to obtain DNA samples and allows for the collection of non-blood sampling of DNA, meaning mouth swabs.

Additionally, the new West Virginia law enlists the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Commission, which is made up of a group of subject matter experts, to outline best practices for the handling of sexual assault forensic examination kits collected by health care providers.

Among the new tasks for the commission is the development of legislative rules setting time frames for submissions of rape kits in possession of law enforcement and protocols for storage of rape kits and DNA samples.

With the new law, “The state has acknowledged that this is where they want go for the future. They want to make sure that every kit that is connected to a reported sexual assault is addressed in a proper manner,” said Knecht

“The average waiting time for the testing of a rape kit is 440 days which is just terrible and unacceptable,” said Sen. Mike Woelfel (D-Cabell, 05), one of the sponsors of SB 36, in a statement.

“It’s my hope, with this bill going into law in June, we’ll start reducing this backlog and we can bring these victims the quick justice they so desperately deserve.”

Sen. Robert Plymale (D-Wayne, 05) was a co-sponsor of the legislation Governor Jim Justice signed into law in March ahead of the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April.

“There are quite a few states that have done a lot more than West Virginia, but there are some states that haven’t done this,” Knecht said.

Future steps in West Virginia, she said, could include mandating the testing of old and new rape kits, establishing rights for sexual violence survivors to know the status of their kits and tracking all rape kits to improve accountability and transparency.

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