Bill Addresses Backlog of Untested Rape Kits

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Almost immediately after a woman is raped, she must endure the invasive and often humiliating process through which evidence is collected. In most cases, an investigator swabs the inside of her vagina to collect DNA for a rape kit that will help identify her assailant. Imagine, then, if that evidence was never even examined, and police stash away the untested rape kit on a shelf, never to be thought about again.

Tens of thousands of women in Texas know exactly what that’s like—having undergone the rape kit collection process only to see the evidence go untested. In fact, the state estimates some 22,000 untested kits are collecting dust on shelves in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio law enforcement offices alone.

A bill by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, aims to address this significant backlog of untested rape kits. Senate Bill 1636, sponsored in the House by Rep. Ruth McClendon, D-San Antonio, passed in both chambers and will soon head to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk.

The bill requires agencies to take inventory of all untested rape kits in their offices by this coming October. If the agencies don’t have the funds or personnel to test the evidence themselves, they must send their kits to the Department of Public Safety for testing. Also, local law enforcement agencies must send new rape kits to crime labs within 30 days of collecting the evidence, and then the crime labs have to test the evidence within three months.

Originally, the bill came with an $11 million price tag to cover the cost of testing the kits, but it was eventually amended to require testing only if money is available to do so. It typically costs between $800 and $1000 to test one rape kit, and with tens of thousands sitting on shelves in just three major cities, that cost would add up quickly. While no additional state funds will be appropriated to cover the cost of testing, Davis said she’s confident that grants, donations and other resources will become available.

“Essentially though, the lack of resources to me is a pitiful excuse for not having tested the kits,” she said.

Witnesses testified in committee hearings this session that investigators don’t test rape kits when the victim knows her rapist because he’s already identified. However, advocates say testing the DNA anyway can help identify future rapists. The national arrest rate for rapists is pretty low—about 25 percent, according to FBI estimates. Testing old rape kits can also help free wrongfully convicted rapists.

While the bill passed in both chambers with bipartisan support, Davis said she got heat from law enforcement agencies throughout the process.

“I think we’re going to find that there are even a much larger number of untested kits than any of us can imagine,” Davis said. “I think [local law enforcement agencies] now know that they’re going to be held accountable for the number of kits that they’ve got on shelves, and they’re going to be answerable to their local communities for it.”

Torie Camp, deputy director of the Texas Association of Sexual Assault, calls Davis’ bill a step in the right direction for sexual assault and domestic violence victims. It’s also a plus for the state’s criminal justice system.

“Rape victims who go through this exam shortly after being sexually assaulted, they will have that experience validated,” she said. “They’re doing their job – they’re going to the hospital and helping with evidence. Now the state needs to do its job by testing the evidence that’s coming off of their bodies.”