Lessons Learned from the Texas Rape Kit Audit

Today, we have a guest post from Texas Department of Public Safety Assistant Director Skylor Hearn. Skylor has been at the helm of Texas’ efforts to count and clear every untested rape kit across the state, and earlier this year testified alongside Joyful Heart Foundation’s Managing Director Sarah Haacke Byrd at the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on the backlog. In an #ENDTHEBACKLOG exclusive, Skylor shares lessons learned from Texas’ audit.

There are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in the United States. To address this problem, many states are in the process of debating, developing or enacting some form of mandatory sexual assault kit legislation. While recent national news articles on this issue may characterize it as a current event, the State of Texas has been working to address this issue for more than four years. During the 2011 session, the Texas Legislature passed a bill (SB-1636) that ended discretionary rape kit testing and mandates testing of all kits in Texas. The bill also requires every law enforcement agency and crime laboratory in the state to inventory and report the total number of untested rape kits in their possession to the Texas Department of Public Safety. 

During the 2013 legislative session, the department shared that number—nearly 16,000 untested rape kits—to the legislature along with the estimated costs for conducting analysis: between $7M and $11M. The legislature provided funding to the state laboratory to outsource every reported untested rape kit in the state for testing. That effort is estimated to be a two-year process and continues today. The target completion date for all testing is January 2017.

Over the last four years of this initiative, many lessons have been learned in Texas. Here are a few important points to consider specifically for legislators and law enforcement considering an audit of the number of untested rape kits:

1. Stop the problem from growing. You can’t audit a moving target. Texas took bold action and pursued a change in law to require submitting every kit from a specific date forward. That move ensured the backlog didn’t grow and we were able to start counting kits from that point backwards.

2. Provide clear audit instructions and parameters. For example, what is the definition - by law or policy – of what constitutes an “untested” kit?   Start with defining this.  If there is no standard definition, agencies will define it differently based on their own needs or limitations and that will affect the accuracy of your count.

3. Consider providing funding for temporary workers or overtime to conduct the audit. Otherwise, this task may end up being a resource drain on the agencies and new cases may suffer. Some departments will simply not comply if they don’t have the resources.

4. Identify some sanction for non-compliance or non-responsiveness. Consider attaching grant funding eligibility or other money-related initiatives to participation. This system has worked well in Texas on other initiatives.

5. Don’t be overwhelmed by the potential cost of testing kits down the road. Just start with the audit. This year, federal funds were available for testing kits through the United States Department of Justice and it is likely there will be more resources allotted next year. Many jurisdictions have also found the resources they need at the local and state level, and we’re starting to see more and more federal resources too. 

6. Allow ample time to conduct the audit. It will generally require file-by-file research to verify if evidence exists, if it was sent to a lab, and if it was actually tested. In our case, we found that six months was an appropriate time frame. 

The bottom line is that untested rape kits remain an important and complex issue worthy of continued attention. The first step in addressing the problem is knowing the extent of the issue, and we’re hopeful this information provides some help in that effort.  

- By Skylor Hearn, November 2nd, 2015

ENDTHEBACKLOG is a program of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

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