March 14, 2017; Texas Tribune
For the past few years, NPQ has been following what happens to the tens of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in storage lockers around the country. This week, a Texas legislator proposed an unusual solution to the problem in her state: Representative Victoria Neave wants to crowdfund the testing fees.
“I wish that this was an issue that we didn’t even have to talk about today, but it is,” said Neave. She admitted that this was not an ideal solution, but with the legislature unwilling to allocate money to this effort, she felt she had no choice.
The proposed bill would:
(1) include space on the first page of each application for an original or renewal driver’s license that allows a person applying for [a]…driver’s license to indicate the amount that the person is voluntarily contributing to the grant program; and (2) provide an opportunity for the person to contribute to the grant program during the application process for an original or renewal driver’s license on the department’s Internet website.
The bill, if passed, is estimated to raise about $1 million a year, which is not enough to test Texas’ whole rape kit backlog. According to the Texas Tribune,
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.
A nonprofit called End the Backlog, which pulls data from the state crime lab, estimates that Texas once again has nearly 20,000 untested kits.
Rape kits are acquired by an invasive and often unsettling examination of a victim, which must take place within 72 hours after the attack occurs.
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The Obama administration attempted to address the national backlog in 2016, allocating $41 million for “grants that support community efforts to develop plans and identify the most critical needs to address sexual assault prevention, investigation, prosecution and services, including addressing their untested sexual assault evidence kits (SAKs) at law enforcement agencies or backlogged crime labs.” Some states, like Kentucky, initiated legislation that provided funding for testing or mandated that kits be tested within a certain amount of time, but eight states still have no reform, either proposed or enacted, to deal with the issue.
There are many reasons why it’s important to test rape kits: It helps catch perpetrators who may be repeat offenders, it adds a level of demonstrative evidence to trials that often rely on hearsay, and it encourages state prosecutors to pursue cases that are often dropped for lack of solid evidence. Less than one percent of rapes lead to a felony conviction—not much of a disincentive for attackers.
Testing the kits sends a message to rape victims and perpetrators. To the victims, it says: You matter, and what happened to you is not okay; we’re going to try to stop it from happening it the future. To potential perpetrators, it says: If you do this, we will use the tools at our disposal to make sure you suffer the consequences. It builds faith in the justice system and adds a layer of accountability.
The fact that many states have so far devoted few to no resources to clearing their backlogs has not gone unnoticed by women’s advocates. Some rape kits have gone untested for so long that even if they were now used to identify the perpetrator, the statute of limitations has passed and no trial could be held.
Several commentators observed that Texas has a $9.7 billion “rainy day fund” (officially known as an economic stabilization fund), which the legislature is authorized to use for “any other purpose the Legislature chooses at any time.” Others noted that the legislature is considering a “bathroom bill” that would require people to use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates; Business Insider estimated that the law would cost the state $8.5 billion in economic losses. Legislators have argued that the bill “protects women and children,” and many have pointed out that testing rape kits and prosecuting sex offenders is a cheaper, less controversial measure that would accomplish that same goal.
Representative Neave’s bill is still pending in committee. State lawmakers seem to view it positively. “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. So far, no amendments or other legislation have been proposed (as far as we know) that would raise the amount of money needed to fully handle Texas’ rape kit backlog.
Of course, this comes from the same state that just brought us a satirical anti-masturbation bill for men. We can always hope that this is more of the same—just a little subtler.
Asking citizens to donate money for testing rape kits is like asking them to pay for the ink used to fingerprint people upon arrest—it’s a public service that should be paid for by taxes, like district attorney budgets or searchable criminal databases. For some reason, rape kit testing has consistently failed to fall in this category. If we want victims to trust the justice system enough to come forward, we need to treat their crimes as seriously as we treat others, and investigate the evidence sitting in warehouses all over the country.—Erin Rubin