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Proposed law would crowdfund donations to help with rape kit backlog

As Texas faces a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits, lawmakers appear unwilling to spend state dollars to address the problem — but they're considering crowdfunding.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Jenny Black, executive director/coordinator at Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, shows a sexual assault evidence collection kit at St. David's Medical Center in Austin on July 29, 2013.

Editor's note: This story was updated on March 15, 2017, to include additional information about current state budget proposals for funding of testing rape kits.

Thousands of rape kits in Texas remain untested, leaving sexual assault victims and police in the dark. And while lawmakers appear unwilling to spend state dollars to address the problem, they did hear testimony Monday on another option — crowdfunding. 

“I wish that this was an issue that we didn’t even have to talk about today, but it is,” said State Representative Victoria Neave, a Democrat from Dallas who authored the proposal to ask Texans for donations to pay for rape kit testing. Goodman Holiday, speaking on behalf of the Austin Justice Coalition, added that the idea “feels just one step removed from holding a bake sale.”

But in a climate where state lawmakers appear unwilling to spend any extra money, both said there was no other choice to address a decades-old backlog of rape kits. Police gather such kits through hours-long, invasive exams of sexual assault victims, and they can cost anywhere from $500 to $2000 to analyze, according to Neave. Forensic analysts and advocates who testified said testing the kits is crucial to solving cases, finding serial rapists and exonerating the wrongfully accused. 

After public safety officials reported a whopping 20,000-kit backlog as of August 2011, lawmakers pumped $11 million into addressing it in 2013. But more than 3,500 of those identified kits are still untested — meaning they haven't been analyzed for over five years. 

There's no statewide data on the backlog of rape kits collected since then, and state lawmakers haven't allocated any additional money. In writing the state's next two-year budget, House and Senate budget writers have proposed providing $4 million in state funds to test newer rape kits, but it's not clear if that money will make it into the final budget.

Neave's legislation would also collect far less than was appropriated in 2013. Her bill, which gives people the option to donate at least $1 to rape kit testing when they apply for or renew their driver's license, is estimated to generate about $1 million a year. (The estimate is based on how much Texans already voluntarily give to veterans' causes through the same mechanism.) 

That’s about as much money as has been given from outside Texas to individual counties just to clear backlogs within their boundaries. Last year, Dallas County received a $1 million federal grant to test rape kits; in 2015, the City of Austin received $2 million from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to test 3,070 kits.

"That's 3,000 of my neighbors waiting for justice and accountability," said Amanda Lewis, co-founder of the Survivor Justice Project. 

Lawmakers seemed pleased with the proposal. "Keep an eye on this bill," said Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso who is chairman of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. Rep. Todd Hunter, Republican of Corpus Christi, added that "I heard there's no problem administering it."

State Rep. Terry Canales, a Democrat from Edinburg, suggested taking things one step further: Why not give individuals who are sexual assault victims the option of paying to have their own rape kit tested, or letting family and friends help out? "I'm sure there's a lot of people that would say, you know what, I'll pay for it," he said. 

He quickly added, "by no means do I think we should pass the obligation on to the average citizen, but the more options we have, the better off we are."

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