Impact Study of Mandatory Evidence Submission Law for Sexual Assault Kits Shows Law Hasn't Led to More Reporting

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A Police Foundation study has found the five-year-old law mandating the testing of sexual assault kits in Texas has not led to an increase in reporting of the crimes, and inconsistent compliance has limited its effectiveness.

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As state legislatures across the country seek to reform the way sexual assault kits are handled, it is critical they understand challenges to meaningfully implementing these laws, and learn from the experiences of trailblazing states like Texas.

While criminal justice officials in Texas generally support universal testing of sexual assault kits, which in recent years has led to arrests in a small percentage of previously unsolved crimes, a Police Foundation study has found the five-year-old law mandating the testing has not led to an increase in reporting of the crimes, and inconsistent compliance has limited its effectiveness.

Those are some of the key conclusions in the second report of findings released today in the Texas Sexual Assault Kit Evaluation Project, Effects of SB1636 on Processing and Dispositions of Sexual Assault Cases in Texas.

The study offers lessons learned and next steps not just for Texas, but also for other states across the country pursuing reform.

“SB1636 was a big step forward to showing sexual assault victims that their complaints will be investigated thoroughly by law enforcement agencies,” said Rob Davis, Chief Social Scientist of the Police Foundation. “The additional work resulting from universal testing has been greatest at the beginning of the criminal justice process: Crime labs have seen the greatest increase in workloads, police investigators less so, and prosecutors least.”

Given the lack of academic research and evaluation of the impact of state legislative reform efforts, the Police Foundation partnered with the National Center for Victims of Crime and the Joyful Heart Foundation, with the generous support of the Communities Foundation of Texas, to establish the Texas Sexual Assault Kit Evaluation Project. Over the past two years, the Project has studied the impact of SB1636 on statewide trends in sexual assault reports, arrests, prosecutions, and convictions; resources and workloads at law enforcement agencies, prosecutorial agencies, and local crime laboratories; and progress in the Department of Public Safety’s efforts to collect and test all untested sexual assault kits from law enforcement agency storage rooms.

Findings included:

  • SB1636 did not impact reporting or arrests in sexual assault cases.
  • The DPS received more than 19,000 archived sexual assault kits but those have come from just 156 of the 2,100 agencies in Texas.
  • Roughly 10 percent of CODIS hits, or 1-5 percent of all pre-August/2011 cases submitted by local agencies for DNA testing, have resulted in an arrest. We expect that there will be convictions in most of the arrest cases.

After a sexual assault, victims typically undergo a medical forensic examination to collect evidence in a sexual assault kit. Once collected, tested, and entered into the national DNA database, the evidence in sexual assault kits can identify unknown offenders, link crimes together, and exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Despite this, experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of sexual assault kits sit untested in law enforcement evidence rooms nationwide.

In 2011, when legislators passed SB1636, Texas became the second state in the nation to require the testing of all kits being held in law enforcement evidence rooms. SB1636 included three major provisions: first, it required that law enforcement agencies submit all newly collected kits for testing; second, it required law enforcement agencies to count all untested kits they had in storage that were connected to a reported crime; and third, it required law enforcement agencies to submit these untested kits to the Department of Public Safety or another public laboratory for testing.

Project researchers – Robert Davis (Chief Social Scientist, Police Foundation), Torie Camp, Susan Howley (Director of Public Policy, National Center for Victims of Crime), Dr. William Wells (Professor, Sam Houston State University), and Ilse Knecht (Director of Policy and Advocacy, Joyful Heart Foundation) – used a mixed-methods research approach to study the effects of SB1636, conducting interviews with key stakeholders at the state and local level and analyzing data to capture the implementation of the law across Texas.

This study should help legislators across the country navigate potential issues that Texas officials have already dealt with, potentially streamlining the process for their states.

“As state legislatures across the country seek to reform the way sexual assault kits are handled, it is critical they understand challenges to meaningfully implementing these laws, and learn from the experiences of trailblazing states like Texas,” Knecht said. “The Texas Sexual Assault Kit Evaluation Project offers a much-needed study of what happens after successful legislative reform in a state, and recommendations to strengthen implementation.”

For background and more information about the Texas Sexual Assault Kit Evaluation Project, please visit http://www.texassak.org.

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Rob Davis
@PoliceFound
since: 02/2014
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