If Texas’s legislature won’t fund rape kit testing, then Texans will, a local lawmaker hopes.
Texas Rep. Victoria Neave, a Dallas Democrat, has introduced new legislation aimed at testing the thousands of rape kits stored in Texas laboratories. After a slowdown in funding, the state fell far behind in its efforts to run lab tests on every kit.
The backlog in kit testing means a backlog in justice for sexual assault victims, many of whom agree to the invasive tests in the hope that their assailants will be identified. With little new funding on the horizon, Neave’s bill would look to Texas for crowdfunding.
“It’s really horrifying that we find ourselves in a situation where evidence testing for survivors is reliant on charitable donations by the public,” Kristen Lenau, response coordinator for SAFE, an Austin-based support group told The Daily Beast.
“We believe the onus to test this evidence is on the state and local governments. But also as advocates for survivors, we’re in support of anything that’s going to get them a little close to the justice and the resolution they deserve.”
The bill would prompt Texas drivers to donate a dollar or more to the state’s rape kit funds when they applied for or renewed their license. The state already has a similar program in place for veterans’ funds, which generates approximately $1 million each year. Neave and the bill’s backers hope their own program could scrounge up another million for rape victims.
Ideally, the state would not need to crowdfund its justice efforts at all. In 2011, Texas launched an effort to crack down on the major backlog, which saw some 20,000 untested rape kits stored in Texas crime labs. The state passed a law requiring investigators to conduct forensic tests on all evidence from sexual assaults within 30 days, and awarded the Texas Department of Public Safety an $11 million grant to test all rape kits collected from 1996 to 2011.
But the grant wasn’t enough. Decades of backlog overwhelmed crime laboratories.
“What that tells us is that for many years, sexual assault evidence and sexual assault survivors were not taken as seriously as we would like them to be,” Lenau said. “There is a story of neglect here around sexual assault survivors.”
As of January 31, 2017, over 3,600 of the pre-2011 kits remained untested, state records show. Meanwhile, the backlog of new rape test kits is growing again.
“That did put a dent in the backlog looking backward,” Chris Kaiser, Director of Public Policy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault told The Daily Beast of the 2011 grant. “But we’re at a point now where we need to continue our commitment so we don’t recreate a backlog of untested kits.”
The state lacks hard numbers on how many total rape kits remain untested, although Kaiser estimates the state is looking at a crisis on par with 2011.
“It’s not unlikely that if we were to do an audit now, it would show more” untested kits than in 2011, Kaiser said. “At least in the 20,000 range, quite possibly more.”
But funding 20,000 rape kit tests will require more than a few dollars from generous Texas drivers. A kit costs between $500 to $2,500 to test, depending on how much DNA evidence it contains, a Neave spokesperson told The Daily Beast. A conservative estimate would put 20,000 tests at $10 million, although costs could easily balloon to $50 million.
A preliminary 2018 state budget suggested allocated $4.2 million for rape kit tests, Neave’s office told The Daily Beast. Texas has also relied on out-of-state grants, like a $2 million grant from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to the city of Austin for rape kit testing in 2015.
The piecemeal funding has real consequences for sexual assault survivors.
“It’s not great news, to be frank,” Kaiser, whose organization does advocacy for survivors. “Our programs that advocate for people through the criminal justice system have to be really honest with people when they go through that process. We have to tell them we don’t often know how long it will take.”
Kaiser warns victims testing could take “quite a long time.”
“Here in Austin, the experience very often is that in the course of a year and a half of prosecution, by the time it’s set for trial, the forensics still aren’t back. That affects the prosecutor’s ability to go to trial,” said Kaiser. “If you don’t have the forensics on time, your options are limited.”
An extra million in donations from Texas drivers could fund “a significant number of cases,” Lenau said. But she and her colleague Victoria Berryhill questioned why the state would not afford sexual assault survivors the same resources as the victims of other crimes.
“While we support any legislation that is going to help us seek justice for survivors,” Berryhill said, “what other violent crime relies on charitable donations from state citizens?”