DALLAS – In his first public bill signing following the end of this year's legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott signed five bills Tuesday, measures that aim to combat human trafficking, eliminate the state's rape kit backlog, and expand resources for survivors of sexual assault.
“I’m here to sign legislation that keeps Texas a national leader in cracking down on human trafficking, making Texas a hostile place for human traffickers and providing protection to the victims of this heinous crime,” Abbott said at New Friends New Life, a support center for formerly trafficked teen girls and sexually exploited women.
House Bill 8 will tackle the state backlog of untested rape kits, which are collected by police through often invasive, hours-long exams of sexual assault victims and can cost anywhere between $500 and $2000 to test. The bipartisan legislation by state Rep. Victoria Neave D-Dallas and state Sen. Jane Nelson R-Flower Mound, will require the state to audit the number, location and status of all filed rape kits. Neave said Tuesday that there's not a known number of untested rape kits, but that an audit a few years ago placed it in the thousands.
New guidelines in the bill will also create a timeline for labs to test rape kits within 90 days of receiving the evidence and removes the statute of limitations for sexual assault for cases where the evidence hasn’t been subject to forensic testing. It also prohibits the state from destroying the rape kit until the statute of limitations expires or 40 years, whichever is longer.
The bill, also called the Lavinia Masters Act, is named after a Dallas woman who was raped at knifepoint when she was 13. Her rape kit sat untested for over 20 years, beyond the state’s statute of limitations at the time. Masters was an advocate for the bill during the session. At Tuesday's bill signing, she received one of the pens Abbott used to sign the bill.
“This legislation, ladies and gentlemen, is for the women who have waited for years for justice for all the women who were not believed,” Neave said. “This sexual violence does not pay mind to party, to wealth, to age. Today we are saying to the women of Texas, not one more rape kit untested, not one more shot at justice left untested.”
During the session, the state's Legislative Budget Board couldn't estimate how much it would cost to implement House Bill 8. Nelson, the Senate's chief budget writer as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said at the signing Tuesday that the budget sets aside $54 million to train rape kit examiners. Nelson said it will take time to train new examiners and the funding will be on a "continual basis."
Other bills Abbott signed Tuesday:
- Senate Bill 20, which aims to boost protections for human trafficking survivors by increasing access to nondisclosure orders that can keep criminal records sealed. He said the bill “provides a path forward” for survivors of human trafficking by allowing them to clear their records. The legislation, from state Sen. Joan Huffman R-Houston, also increases penalties for individuals involved in online human trafficking.
- Senate Bill 71 which creates a "statewide telehealth center" designed to connect medical providers performing sexual assault exams with nurses trained in those exams. "This law allows health care providers across Texas to connect with those sexual assault nurse examiners to provide appropriate care to survivors of sexual assault and to ensure forensic evidence is collected in a way that will be upheld in court," Abbott said of the bill.
- House Bill 1590, which creates the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Task Force in the Governor's Office. The task force will advise the state attorney general's office on rules regarding evidence in sexual assault cases and advise the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement on improving training for officers handling those cases.
- House Bill 2613, a measure that makes it a crime to operate a stash house used to facilitate crimes such as prostitution or human trafficking. The bill also allows law enforcement agencies to use asset forfeiture on contraband from a stash house to directly help human trafficking survivors.
All five bills will take effect September 1.