While rape kit backlog continues, legislative measures hope to help victims

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thousands of sexual assault victims are waiting for answers and some Texas lawmakers want to arm them with more information on their cases.

At last check, DNA evidence in 2,500 cases sit untested in Austin. The majority of those represent sexual assault victims waiting for answers. The backlog began with a 2011 law requiring every kit to be tested, regardless of whether the case will be prosecuted. APD’s DNA lab closure last summer compounded the delays.

After last summer’s shutdown of the lab, technicians testing biological evidence in rape cases are behind by more than a year. One victim who wanted to know where her case was in line went to Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin.

“They will submit to hour long exams that are very invasive. They do that expecting that that evidence will be used to find the perpetrator,” said Rep. Howard.

She filed a bill requiring the Department of Public Safety to gather information from local law enforcement and create a statewide evidence tracker. Just like one could track a package on Amazon, victims could log on and see the status of their rape kit testing. But contracting with a kit tracking company would cost $1.2 million up front then $250,000 a year to maintain the database.

“Yes that’s a big hurdle in this legislative session,” said Rep. Howard.

If the state doesn’t have the money, her bill allows non-profits, donations, or federal grants to pay for it. “It’s not dependent upon state dollars. If that will sink the bill I don’t want to do that,” said Rep. Howard.

Chris Kaiser from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault says while this bill wouldn’t speed up the process, it would give peace of mind to the victims. “Some of them have not been tested at all. I think people have good cause to worry,” said Kaiser.

The bill is in the House Criminal Jurisprudence committee, expecting to vote within the week.

Rep. Howard said systems used in Michigan and other states have built in procedures to protect someone’s identity. If a child is under 18, their parent could use the system unless the parent is the one accused of the sexual assault.

A state lawmaker wants to create a grant program to fix the DNA evidence backlog by collecting donations from Texas drivers.

House Bill 1729 would give you the option to donate when you apply for or renew your license. Law enforcement agencies could apply to use the money collected to test DNA kits at an accredited crime lab. The bill’s author, Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, says the solution requires statewide involvement.

Rep. Neave told KXAN, “I’m a big believer that we as Texans, we have compassion. And one dollar can make a big difference and so by somebody donating any amount, it would make a big difference to help end the backlog of untested rape kits.”

The legislative budget board believes the DNA evidence grant has the potential to raise a million dollars a year. The bill passed it’s first hurdle Monday, getting a unanimous vote of approval from a House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence.

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