The New York Times reported this week that the Texas Department of Public Safety will receive $11 million to implement SB 1636, Wendy Davis's bill addressing the enormous backlog of untested rape kits in the state. Davis introduced SB 1636 during the previous legislative session in 2011 in response to the news that there were tens of thousands of rape kits sitting untested in police stations across Texas, some dating back as far as 1980. Now that the bill is funded, it will institute several important changes to the way that sexual assaults are investigated in Texas. Police departments will be required to submit rape kits for testing within 30 days of determining that a sexual assault occurred, and they must run DNA analysis within 90 days of a sexual assault being reported. As long as funding is available, police will also have to test untested rape kits from active cases dating back to 1996.
When the bill was passed in 2011, the first step of its implementation called for Texas law enforcement agencies to report the number of rape kits that still required testing by October 2011. Delays and inaction on the part of some law enforcement agencies caused this simple first step to instead take close to 2 years, further delaying the testing of rape kits across the state. It was eventually found that there was a backlog of over 20,000 rape kits statewide from cases since 1996 that qualify for testing. Thus, this year the Legislature allocated $11 million to DPS in its line-item budget in order to implement SB 1636's more stringent sexual assault forensics provisions.
Read about why thousands of rape kits have remained untested, and how the new law will help after the jump.Decades of budget cuts have left police departments across the state with tight budgets and overworked crime labs, which has led to storage rooms filled with thousands upon thousands of untested rape kits. There is also a prevailing attitude among many law enforcement agencies that rape kits are only useful in cases where assaults are committed by a stranger. When a victim knows their attacker, rape kits generally serve as confirmation that sexual contact occurred, since the rapist doesn't need to be identified. For victims of the two-thirds of rapes that are committed by someone known to the victim, this means that most of their rape kits are never tested. It's true that in some of these cases the data from a rape kit may not be needed, but in many cases leaving the kits untested can allow rapists to get away with denying that sexual contact even happened. The combination of strained resources and institutional aversion has left countless rape kits untested across Texas. For example, the Texas Tribune reported that “of the estimated 7,000 to 9,000 rape kits collected from 1996 to 2010” in Dallas, less than half were sent for testing. This is a travesty that SB 1636 will finally help correct.
The new bill has the potential to make a huge difference for rape victims and for law enforcement in many ways. The DPS estimates that at least half of the newly tested rape kits will yield evidence that can solve crimes. Moreover, having a database of DNA from rape kits could help law enforcement catch serial rapists, if they find that multiple rape kits have matching DNA. In cases where an attacker rapes an acquaintance and a stranger, both rape kits will now be tested, enabling prosecution to try these perpetrators as serial rapists. And testing older rape kits could help clear the names of innocent people who have may have been wrongly convicted, as was the case with Cornelius Dupree Jr. who was exonerated in 2011 after 30 years of wrongful imprisonment.
This legislation is only a start in the right direction. Thousands of rape kits will remain untested because they date back to earlier than 1996. Continuing to promptly test rape kits will require continued funding from somewhere, most likely the Legislature. (Some Texas cities have instituted creative ways to fund rape kit testing, such as Houston, where a $5 surcharge on strip club customers has funded the testing of over 4,000 rape kits.) It will take a long time to test the thousands of rape kits currently sitting in storage, and if it takes 2 years to act every time more money is needed then the backlog will only continue to grow. We shouldn't forget this fact, and we should remind our elected officials to continue to make funding for rape kit testing a budget priority when the time comes.
Nonetheless, the fact that SB 1636 is finally going into effect is a great accomplishment for all Texas women. We've been waiting 2 years for this bill to be implemented. The new funding is even more welcome news for thousands of rape victims who have been waiting even longer than 2 years for their rapists to be brought to justice. We should relish the accomplishment, but also look forward and ensure Wendy Davis's hard work stays in effect for years to come.