Thousands of untested rape kits could be examined for DNA evidence, but a bill considered today by a Senate panel carries a hefty price tag. The result could be that the boxes remain stacked on shelves in police storage rooms across the state.
The bill, by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, would require a police department to submit a rape kit to a crime lab within at least 10 days, and complete the DNA analysis no later than 90 days after the sexual assault was reported. After testing, the Texas Department of Public Safety would compare the DNA profile to those already in databases maintained by the state and the FBI. To address the “backlog of evidence,” the bill requires — only to the extent that funding is available — that all untested rape kits from active cases since 1996 be tested by 2014.
According to a fiscal analysis of the bill, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio alone have more than 22,000 untested rape kits.
“It sure does sound like an awful, broken system to me,” said Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, expressing concern for women who are sexually assaulted and then undergo the invasive process of submitting biological evidence, only to find out it won't be tested.
But DPS estimates it would cost Texas more than $11 million to outsource testing to crime labs with enough personnel to process all of the rape kits.
“It would be a tremendous unfunded mandate on our department,” Jim Jones, a sergeant with the San Antonio Police Department, told the committee. Departments don't typically test rape kits when the suspect is known to the victim, because DNA testing only shows that a sex act occurred. It can't determine whether the act was consensual, Jones said. If a suspect is convicted, their DNA profile will be compared to state and FBI DNA databases anyway, Jones said, leaving little reason for the department to incur the cost of testing the rape kit.
And 10 days isn’t necessarily enough time to determine whether a sexual assault actually occurred, Jones said. Submitting rape kits prematurely for testing — at about $1,000 each — would burden the state and local departments with undue costs.
Davis said she is willing to change the bill to give police more time for investigation, but the cost shouldn’t be an issue for local police departments. The bill doesn’t mandate testing, she said. It only requires testing if there are adequate financial resources and personnel. But she hopes the legislation will encourage city councils to appropriate funding to address the backlog.
Torie Camp, deputy director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, told the committee the bill “would increase arrest rates for sexual assault” — exactly what Sen. Davis has in mind.
By testing all rape kits from assaults that happened in the last seven years, the Fort Worth Police Department matched 207 DNA profiles in the FBI’s database, and identified five serial rapists, a sergeant from the department told legislators. “What you’ve discovered by virtue of testing all of those kits are rapists who have now been identified in other instances,” says Davis.
The DPS recently received a $2.4 million “backlog reduction grant” from the National Institute of Justice, said Pat Johnson, deputy assistant director of the DPS crime lab. The money is used for all cases with biological evidence, and so far an additional 1,500 DNA tests have been conducted. But Johnson says they’ll need more than that grant to test all of the rape kits.