ATLANTA - Thursday the Georgia Bureau of Investigation packed up and shipped out 394 sexual assault evidence kits to a private lab for testing. The new partnership is one of the ways the bureau hopes to reduce the state's current backlog of rape kits.
"The eventual goal is that over time they'll be able to process 1,400 kits for us," explained GBI Spokeswoman Nelly Miles.
According to the GBI, as of this week, they have 1,712 kits unassigned and awaiting testing. Some of those date back to as far as 2018.
"Overall, I'm concerned that we might be going backward," said State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta.
Rep. Holcomb was the primary sponsor of legislation back in 2016 to identify and expedite the testing of the approximately 3,500 sexual assault evidence kits discovered "warehoused" at Grady Hospital and on evidence room shelves across the state.
In November 2018, Holcomb, along with other elected officials announced the state had finally processed all of those kits.
"What I always remind people of is each kit is a person," said Rep. Holcomb. "It's a victim and that's evidence that was taken from their body of one of the worst crimes that anybody could suffer through. We just really need to continue to be focused on this."
Earlier this year, Gov. Brian Kemp asked state agencies to trim their budgets significantly and at the GBI, that meant jobs in the state crime lab were on the chopping block. Though the legislature was able to restore that money and save those positions.
During budget hearings in February, GBI Director Vic Reynolds told state lawmakers the bureau needed to look at the idea of outsourcing some testing of evidence.
At that time Reynolds said the backlog was 700 rape kits.
"The bureau and particularly the lab needs to do things a little differently," Reynolds told committee members.
According to the GBI, it costs about $900 per kit to have a private lab test them and they are currently using federal grant money to pay for it.
Statewide the agency has 21 trained DNA analysts dedicated to testing. They have the capacity to process up to 294 sexual assault evidence kits per month, but typically do between 200 and 220 because of what are known as "priority requests," evidence that moves to the front of the line for one reason or another.
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On average, law enforcement agencies submit another 200 rape kits to the GBI lab each month.
"If it was 700 that we were behind at the start of the year, we've now increased that by another thousand, which means that by the end of the year at these current rates, we'll have over 2,000 that will be waiting to be tested," said Rep. Holcomb. "The more that we get behind, the harder that it is going to be for us to catch up."
The GBI has added six new analysts to their lab staff since December 2019, but it will still be some time before their impact is felt.
"We're very excited that we have six new people that are being trained right now, but I will say that it's a very extensive training program so it takes about 18 months for them to get on board," explained Miles.
Rep. Holcomb said he appreciates the GBI sending kits off for private testing, but thinks the state would be better off processing the evidence themselves.
"The State of Georgia should have the capacity to do its own testing," Holcomb said. "We shouldn't need to send them out to labs across the country. We should be able to do it here and the reason why I say that is ultimately the goal is to bring prosecutions and you need to be able to testify about the evidence. It's better if we have people who are local that can say they did the work, they did the testing and as a result of that, they identified this suspect."
Lawmakers will continue to track the number of backlogged sexual assault kits and Holcomb said they will work to fix the problem if it continues.