Clearing Texas Rape Kit Backlog Brings Hefty Price Tag

Pictured is a sexual assault evidence collection kit used by law enforcement throughout Texas.
Pictured is a sexual assault evidence collection kit used by law enforcement throughout Texas.

There are some 20,000 untested rape kits sitting on evidence shelves in police departments across Texas, the state Department of Public Safety estimates.

Each box with samples of hair, skin and clothing represents one of the worst moments of the victim’s life, a crime that was followed by hours in a doctor’s office submitting the most personal evidence.

“For nothing to be done with it is a revictimization of that person,” said Victoria Camp, deputy director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. “And I think that is unfair.”

In 2011, Texas lawmakers approved a bill by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, that required law enforcement agencies to audit the number of untested rape kits in their evidence rooms and report that information to the DPS. Now that the state has counted the number of kits, lawmakers will have to determine in the 2013 session how much money it will take to clear the backlog.

“We’ll have to go back in next session and see what we can come up with,” Davis said.

Over the years, thousands of untested kits collected in police evidence rooms, a result of tight budgets, overworked crime labs and a common law enforcement philosophy that rape kits were useful as evidence only if a stranger had committed the assault.

As law enforcement agencies test the kits and identify DNA from assailants, Davis and advocates for sexual assault victims are hoping to track down rapists and solve cases.

Initially, the auditing requirement met with resistance from some law enforcement agencies.

Some worried that requiring DNA testing on all rape kits could do more harm than good. In many cases, that evidence would not prove helpful to catching more perpetrators, and often the victims decide not to prosecute.

Forcing all the kits into the lab, they worried, might further clog the system. Despite an October 2011 deadline to report their untested backlog, so many had failed to do so that in May, Davis sent a memo reminding police agencies that they were required to obey the law.

The pace of reporting improved, and now the department reports that more than 130 of the more than 2,600 police agencies have submitted information about their backlogs; many of those reporting are the biggest agencies. Davis said officials were confident the remaining departments were making efforts to report their untested kits. The departments so far have reported about 15,900 untested kits. Because some agencies have not reported figures, the DPS estimates that there are about 20,000 untested kits statewide.

The department estimates it would cost the state $7 million to $11 million to clear such a testing backlog. It would be less expensive but would take longer if the department did the testing in-house, rather than outsourcing the tests. “The funding is the million-dollar question, literally,” said Camp, of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. “I don’t have a good answer for that.”

Some agencies, like the Houston Police Department, are seeing results from clearing the backlog. The city uses a fee collected from strip-club patrons to pay for kit testing. In July, testing led to the arrest of a man who was charged with a 2003 rape.

Davis said she was hopeful that a bill that the U.S. Senate approved on New Year’s Eve would help pay for the tests.

The Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting, or SAFER, Act by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would provide financing for states to test backlogged rape kits. It will be reintroduced to the new U.S. House and Senate.

If that measure does not pass, Davis said, she would work with lawmakers to find the money in Texas to pay the bill.

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