A fifth year of federal funding for Duluth's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative will seek to increase and enhance prosecutions for crimes that have gone uncharged, officials said Monday.
The Duluth Police Department, St. Louis County Attorney's Office and Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault have received a $727,651 award from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance in the latest grant cycle. While a backlog of more than 600 sexual assault kits was eliminated in early 2018, authorities said the ongoing funding will ensure more cases make it to the courtroom.
“Now that all our unsubmitted kits have been tested, we’ll be starting the work of building cases for the attorney’s office to prosecute," Police Chief Mike Tusken said. "Together we’ll work to bring justice to victims. We are grateful for this opportunity.”
The funding has allowed PAVSA to have advocates work within the Duluth Police Department, reaching out to the victims and offering services or the opportunity to speak with an investigator. Sara Niemi, PAVSA's executive director, said that has strengthened her organization's partnerships with police and prosecutors.
"We are proud of the progress made so far but are also aware that there is much more work to be done to support survivors and hold offenders accountable," she said.
With the latest grant, the police department will add an investigator to work specifically with the attorney's office to build cases. Just last month, a 66-year-old Duluth man was sentenced to 12 years in prison for sexually assaulting a woman in his cab in 2012 — the first conviction and sentenced handed down as a result of the SAKI program.
"Recent jury convictions in SAKI cases prosecuted by our Criminal Division Head Nathaniel Stumme have demonstrated that overdue justice is possible even under difficult circumstances after waiting so long," said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin. "We will also continue to work to assure that sentencing judges have the opportunity to hear victims explain their journey from hopelessness to empowerment — a direct result of the remarkable supportive collaboration with our partner agencies and the resources made available through SAKI funding.”