When you go to the Department of Public Safety office to apply for a driver’s license, the application asks if you want to donate a buck or more to support veterans or organ donation or people who are visually impaired. If Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, has her way, you’ll be asked if you’d like to help the state pay to test DNA evidence from sexual assault cases.
Lawmakers in the Texas House are expected to vote Wednesday on the proposal to essentially crowdfund the testing of rape kits. (Update: The House passed the bill on a voice vote Wednesday morning, although a final vote is needed before it moves to the Senate.)
Thousands of rape kits untested across the state
“Our bill is expected to generate a million dollars a year and would help address and end the backlog of untested rape kits,” Neave said.
Across Texas, thousands of rape kits, each containing evidence from victims who’ve reported being sexually assaulted, sit sealed and untested in forensics labs and law enforcement offices.
When rape victims goes to the hospital, they can get forensic evidence taken to help identify and prosecute their assailant. What’s missing is the funding in state and local budgets to pay to process the evidence in many of those kits. Each kit can cost between $500 and $2,000 to test.
The scale of the backlog in Texas is unclear. Neave said in Dallas County, which she represents, there are at least 4,000 untested rape kits.
“In Travis County there are another 3,000. There’s a state lab in Houston that has another 3,000 to 4,000.” Neave said. “That’s just in a few counties. We anticipate there are thousands more across the state that are untested.”
This is not a new problem in Texas. Lawmakers allocated $11 million to clear a backlog of nearly 20,000 rape kits discovered in 2011. The state is still working through kits dating far back to the mid-90s, but that money was restricted so it only pays to test old kits.
Since then, the backlog has continued to grow. Lawmakers put no money toward rape kit testing during the last session in 2015. They’re considering putting some in now, but that’s not a sure bet in this tight budget year that has lawmakers battling over how to fund a range of priorities with limited revenues.
Victims’ advocates say it’s important to remember that each kit represents a person who said she or he was raped.
“Sexual assault is unique because the victim’s body is a crime scene,” said Alisha Byerly from the Tarrant County Women’s Center in Fort Worth, who supervises a team of advocates who help victims when they go to the hospital.
Backlog is a 'systematic failure'
Collecting a rape kit often takes hours, and Byerly said it’s a difficult process. The victim has to re-tell all the details of the rape so a nurse knows which parts of the body will have evidence, and then a nurse probes and photographs the most private places to collect evidence of a crime that’s just happened. In most cases, DNA evidence needs to be collected within 72 hours of the assault.
“In the process of already being very mentally traumatizing, and having all of that control taken away from their body, and them trying to regain this control, they’re extremely uncomfortable and it’s extremely invasive,” Byerly said.
After all of that, Byerly said to put that evidence on a shelf and ignore it is deeply discouraging for victims. Ilse Knecht said it’s a symptom of a larger social and political problem.
“The rape kit backlog is actually a systemic failure of the criminal justice system to take sexual assault cases seriously,” Knecht said.
Knecht leads a national campaign called End the Backlog, which is funded by the Joyful Heart Foundation.
It’s impossible to know just how big the backlog is nationwide because a lot of states, like Texas, don’t keep track. But she said it’s been a problem in states and cities across the country. And that, she said, threatens public safety.
“Rapists are very often serial offenders,” she said. “They commit all kinds of crime. They commit crimes against people they know and people they don’t know and they just don’t stop.”
When Detroit started testing 10,000 untested kits that it had warehoused for years, it identified more than 780 suspected serial rapists. It led to dozens of convictions, and connected crimes in 40 different states. In Cleveland, evidence from old rape kits connected a man to 15 different sexual assaults.
'It's a public safety issue'
Not all kits should be tested, Knecht said, because victims have the right to have a rape kit collected without reporting the crime to the police. In Texas, the Department of Public Safety holds onto the kits for two years, giving survivors time to decide to file charges later. Other states save kits for different amounts of time. Still, Knecht stresses that the backlog is primarily made up of kits that should be tested, because they’re taken from women and men who’ve filed a crime report with law enforcement.
Knecht said states vary widely when it comes to standards for testing and tracking rape kits. Eventually, she hopes that every state develops laws to mandate testing of all rape kits connected to reported assaults quickly, and a way for survivors to track their own kit anonymously.
So far, the results have been piecemeal, but she’s optimistic: Twenty-seven state legislatures had bills introduced Legislation to strengthen the process this year. In Texas, bills have also been introduced to require law enforcement to track rape kits after they’re taken.
“We are seeing legislators across the country finding the dollars in their budgets because they prioritized it, and saying this is something we need to invest in, it’s a public safety issue,” Knecht said.
“It shouldn’t get to the point of us having to ask individuals to contribute,” said Rep. Victoria Neave, “but I believe in the heart and the compassion of our fellow Texans that a dollar here, a dollar there, and all of us working together a generate funds to help these women and victims get justice.”
At least by crowdfunding, Neave said, there’ll be some money to help end the backlog.