Joyful Heart in the News
It's time to test rape kits
Over the last two years, cities across Texas, including Houston, have acknowledged significant backlogs of untested rape kits in their police storage facilities — at least 4,000 kits in Houston and another 16,000 untested kits in Dallas and San Antonio combined. We know from news reports, law enforcement and survivors that untested rape kits represent lost justice for victims and lost opportunities to get rapists off the streets - and they send a message to assailants that raping a woman has no legal consequences. Texas needs rape-kit reform. Fortunately, Senate Bill 1636 and House Bill 3147, currently before the Legislature, can move the state significantly closer to bringing a comprehensive solution to this dismaying issue.
When a woman is sexually assaulted - which happens every two minutes in this country - and she reports the crime to the police, a hospital or rape crisis center, she will be asked to undergo a procedure that will yield a "sexual assault evidence kit" - commonly known as a "rape kit." In an invasive, often traumatic, four- to six-hour-long exam, a nurse or doctor collects evidence from the victim's body - a sexual assault's primary crime scene. When the exam is over, the rape kit will contain DNA and other evidence that, when tested, can aid in the prosecution of the crime. Testing a rape kit can identify a perpetrator, connect evidence from individual crime scenes to serial rapists, confirm a victim's version of events, confirm the presence of a known suspect, affirm a victim's decision to report the crime and exonerate innocent suspects. After New York City implemented mandatory rape-kit testing in 2003 and began testing every kit booked into police evidence, the arrest rate for rape jumped from 40 percent to 70 percent. The change in policy also resulted in the prosecution of more than 200 cold cases.
Testing kits helps bring perpetrators to justice and sends rapists the message that they will be held accountable for their crimes. And significantly, testing sends rape victims the clear, compassionate and vital message that their cases and their lives matter.
After a victim goes through an exam and agrees to have the kit turned over to the police, the logical assumption is that the evidence collected will be sent to a crime lab for testing. Why else would so much effort, time and extreme discomfort go into collecting the evidence?
But all too often, rape kits never reach the labs. As statutes of limitation run out and rapists go free to rape again, kits pile up in storage facilities in cities across the country. The news from Houston, Dallas and San Antonio reveals that Texas is no exception. Texas doesn't currently require authorities to track untested rape kits, making the exact number throughout the state impossible to determine, but the sampling from several cities suggests that the backlog is big.
During this legislative session, Texas has the opportunity to enact comprehensive, sustainable rape kit reform. The Texas Senate has unanimously passed a rape kit reform bill introduced by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Austin. The bill now goes to the Texas House, where the companion bill by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, has already been heard in committee. The legislation would require law enforcement to inventory and report the number of untested rape kits in their storage facilities by October 2011, and to send all backlogged kits for testing by 2012. In addition, every new rape kit would be sent to a crime lab within 30 days of being booked into police evidence.
In a state with a 23 percent arrest rate for reported rapes - which means assailants have a 3 out of 4 chance of walking away without consequence - rape kit reform would not only send thousands of untested kits to the labs they were intended to reach, but would also give thousands of rape victims the opportunity for healing, as well as the justice they sought when they first reported the crimes.
Seven years ago, the Fort Worth Police Department began testing all of its rape kits. The processed kits have produced 207 criminal database matches and have helped authorities apprehend five serial rapists - two of whom had no prior criminal history.
Public officials in Houston know how important fixing the rape-kit backlog is for public safety. That is why they applied for and received a federal grant to help them clean up their rape-kit backlog.
This legislation presents an opportunity for Texas to be a national leader for victims' rights. If the state passes rape-kit reform, it will become only the second in the nation to do so. Texas has the opportunity to send this country a message: We take rape seriously.
Hesitancy on the part of lawmakers to pass the bill will likely focus on the issue of cost. Yes, this is certainly a difficult budget year to request extra resources. But can the state afford not to enact rape kit reform? Testing is a fundamental part of providing justice and preventing more rapes - obligations for any government committed to addressing sexual violence. Rape victims should not pay a price for saving the state money. Other jurisdictions that have enacted reforms similar to the ones proposed in Texas - Los Angeles and Illinois, for example - did so in equally difficult budgetary times, and in ways that imposed less of a burden on law enforcement than opponents had predicted.
The news about the rape-kit backlog in Texas is alarming. But the problem can be fixed.
Pass this legislation, sign it into law and let Texas lead in rape kit reform.
Hargitay is an actress, advocate and founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which works to bring healing and justice to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. Tofte is the director of advocacy and policy for the foundation and a national expert on the rape-kit backlog. Burrhus-Clay is executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault and has worked in the anti-sexual assault field for 31 years.