This year, going to renew or apply for a license might just be how Texans can chip in to help move along rape kit testing across the state.
Lawmakers are considering a bill that would create a mechanism for people to donate a buck or more to the Department of Public Safety while they're renewing or applying for driver's licenses or IDs — money that would go toward rape kit testing. On Wednesday, the bill sailed through the Texas House and is on its way to the Senate.
The bill, House Bill 1729 by State Representative Victoria Neaves (D-Dallas), is intended to help various crime labs around the state eliminate backlogs in rape-kit testing so that rape victims don't have to wait as cases drag on and the accused can be brought to swift justice. The Legislative Budget Board estimates the bill would pool $1 million in donations every year, an estimate that's based on the amount of money people donated to veterans through a similar DPS program. DPS would then dish out the cash to various crime labs in need of extra resources to clear out backlogs.
Dr. Peter Stout, CEO and president of the Houston Forensic Science Center, said that, no matter the size of the grants, any amount would go a long way.
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"Everybody, at the state and local level, seems to have an appreciation and understanding for the importance of this work, and that, really, a fairly small increase in funding for what we're doing has significant impact for law enforcement to function effectively and for prosecution to function effectively," said Stout, who testified on the bill at the Lege last month. "If you spend a little bit of money with us, you get a whole lot elsewhere."
Securing enough funding for crime labs in Texas has been an ongoing struggle for years. The last time DPS reported the statewide backlog, in 2011, 20,000 rape kits sat on shelves untested, leading lawmakers to pour in $11 million in funding to clear it — and yet 3,500 are still untested, the Texas Tribune reports.
In Houston specifically, the Houston Forensic Science Center inherited a 6,600-case backlog, with some dating back as far as 1984, when it took over the mismanaged crime lab from the Houston Police Department in 2014. After whittling the backlog down for two years, the center was again running about 400 cases behind last spring because of staff shortages and an influx of cases. It took several months to get things back to normal. Today HFSC turns around rape kits on average within 50 days — which to Stout is still not quite fast enough. The goal is under 30.
"Every piece of evidence we have has some very real person on the other end of it," Stout said, "and anything that sits on a shelf a day longer than it has to is a very real problem for somebody. Sadly the lab is at the hub at a lot of those delays. This isn't curing cancer, where there's some unknown reason for it. I think we can fix it. The constant stories across the nation we're seeing of laboratories failing and having problems is really the difference of relatively small increases in funding."