Texas Still Has Thousands of Untested Rape Kits
Latest figures show 5,298 untested sexual assault kits in the possession of state and local law enforcement agencies
Despite Governor Greg Abbott’s pledge to “eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas” and a 2019 law that mandated rape kits be tested within 90 days, the state’s law enforcement community still struggles to complete the lab work necessary to investigate rapes and hold the perpetrators accountable.
According to Ericka Miller of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), as of August 2021, 1,716 sexual assault kits sit untested in the state crime lab system.
In addition to these kits at the state crime lab, an even larger number of untested sexual assault kits are held by law enforcement agencies around the state—3,582 when a one-time audit was conducted in 2020. The state does not track this larger group of untested sexual assault kits on an ongoing basis and could not provide more up to date numbers.
On Tuesday, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s action allowing S.B. 8, Texas’s highly restrictive six-week abortion ban, to come into effect, reporters pressed Abbott on the new law’s lack of a customary exception for rape. Abbott’s response made headlines.
"Let's make something very clear: Rape is a crime," Abbott said. "And Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets."
Asked today about how the data showing thousands of untested rape kits around the state is consistent with this pledge, his office adopted a different tone. “Even with the strongest laws and best enforcement, evil people will do evil things,” Abbott’s press secretary Renae Eze wrote, “and our responsibility as a society is to support crime victims with the resources and help they need.” Eze went on to list initiatives like the “Sexual Assault Survivors Task Force” and increased funding for the “Alternatives to Abortion program.” She did not address the possibility that a pregnant rape victim might feel the resources and help she needs are, in fact, abortion services.
Abbott’s initial statement was, of course, illogical. Without a supernatural prophetic resource like the precogs in Minority Report, even the most diligent policing community could not prevent all future rapes and thereby entirely eliminate the risk of pregnancies resulting from rape. Arguably, the most law enforcement here on Earth can do is investigate and prosecute rapes and sexual assaults that have already occurred, perhaps preventing the offenders from striking again and winning some measure of justice for their victims—but not sparing those victims the risk of an unwanted, nonconsensual pregnancy.
Even by those more prosaic standards, in the nearly seven years that Abbott has led the state’s government and the twelve years before that when he was its attorney general, Texas’s record of diligence has left much to be desired. A report from DPS counts 14,656 reported rapes in the state during 2019, and only around 2,200 arrests. This low clearance rate is magnified by the reality that most rapes go unreported; a 2015 University of Texas study estimated, using survey research, that less than 10% of rapes and sexual assaults in the state are reported to law enforcement.
In 2019, Lavinia Masters—an activist whose own rape kit had gone untested for more than two decades—stood beside Abbott as he signed a law bearing her name. Among other things, the Lavinia Masters Act, H.B. 8, set timelines for the processing of sexual assault kits. Under the law’s provisions, law enforcement agencies that receive or collect kits are required to submit them to an accredited laboratory within 30 days and, if sufficient resources and personnel are available, accredited laboratories are required to complete their tests no later than 90 days after they receive the kits. The state’s law enforcement agencies have never honored these timelines with compliance.
The 1,716 kits within the DPS crime lab system, according to DPS, include 1,081 kits submitted after Sept. 2019, when the Lavinia Masters Act became effective. “We feel it is important to note a majority of those kits are being processed within 90 days of submission,” DPS spokesperson Ericka Miller wrote in response to an inquiry from Pawprints. It’s unclear what, if anything, is happening with the other 635 kits received at the DPS crime lab before September 2019 and never tested.
As mentioned above, a 2020 DPS audit that found nearly 3,600 untested rape kits at agencies around the state. That auditors proposed testing them in private laboratories on a schedule that, if work had been begun when the audit was submitted in September 2020, was projected to have cleared the backlog in August 2023; it would have required an additional $1.2 million to complete. “While this timeline does not meet the deadline outlined in HB 8,” the auditors wrote, “it is a reasonable estimate of what capacity is available in the private laboratories.” The additional money never came through, and while it’s unclear whether any private lab work has been undertaken, as of today DPS—the agency that proposed the project—had no updated data on those untested rape kits.
“Governor Abbott has championed the safety and security of all Texans,” Renae Eze, his Press Secretary, wrote in her statement, “and has particularly focused on protecting and supporting women who may be victims of sexual assault.”