By editorial board • 

State cleans up one backlog and generates a new one

In 2015, the state crime lab acknowledged a backlog of 5,600 untested rape kits. That admission barely hinted at the towering magnitude of the actual problem.
Because it was typically taking five years or more to get a kit tested, many law enforcement agencies had been submitting kits only in high-profile cases featuring a promising suspect. They had been rat-holing the rest, which dated back as far as 1983, a span of 32 years.

The Legislature responded by passing Melissa’s Law, which allocated $1.5 million to expedited in-state testing and out-of-state help. It was named for 14-year-old Melissa Bittler, who was abducted, raped and strangled by a serial rapist while en route to her Portland school. Her case went unsolved for years as police awaited test results.

The Legislature was so busy patting itself on the back for taking action, though, it failed to notice the backlog grew exponentially before finally beginning to subside. Or that $1.5 million wasn’t nearly enough, so the lab ceased processing DNA from property crimes to concentrate on DNA from sex crimes. Or that the lab now faces a substantial backlog of property crime kits with no clear prospect of catching up.

The shelving of rape kits over a span of several decades was disgraceful. Officials who knew about it, and there must have been hundreds if not thousands, should forever feel the sting of shame. They dealt a legion of victimized women a grave injustice.

And the back testing, finally completed late last month, has produced spectacular results. Oregonians have been greeted with a steady stream of headlines like these:

“Text of old kit leads to sentencing of felon for 2012 rape.” “22-year-old rape in Waterfront Park solved through sex assault kit.” “Testing of old sex assault kit leads to 8-year sentence in 2010 rape.”

But solving Oregons’s rape testing disgrace at the expense of theft and burglary testing remains utterly unacceptable. Oregonians deserve both, not one or the other.

Crime lab supervisor Tim Fox told KATU News, “We’re at the breaking point.” The OSP captain said the lab simply lacks the staffing and equipment to handle both categories.

Fox likened the prioritizing to playing Whack-A-Mole, an arcade game in which a seemingly endless stream of moles pop up to replace every one the frantic player manages to dispatch.

We elect legislators to solve problems, not simply replace one with another, Whack-a-mole style. This one demands a solution by January.

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