The City of Houston recently announced that 6,663 sexual assault kits have been tested after sitting untested for years in the Houston Police Department property room.
Now a team of special police investigators and prosecutors at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will review each case for potential prosecution. Business as usual? Hardly.
As researchers working with a group of Houston advocates and stakeholders, our task was to devise strategies to avoid this situation in the future. After all, many law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have untested sexual assault kits.
Houston was not unique. But today, Houston is one of the first cities in the U.S. with no untested kits.
Other cities can learn from the way Houston addressed its untested rape kit problem. There are some specific things that should be done right now that could help avoid issues such as this in the future.
For starters, we must reconsider “test-all” procedures. This is a controversial recommendation, especially after legislation passed in 2013 that requires a test-all approach in Texas.
One important finding from our research is that testing alone will not help us to avoid a repeat performance of this tragedy of untested rape kits. Our research shows that accountability is needed, and smart testing procedures may go further toward a permanent change. Smart testing involves the review of kits by a multidisciplinary team of professionals for probative value.
Many advocacy and law enforcement organizations argue for test-all policies because of the accumulation of testing results in the national DNA database. But, our analysis in Houston showed that the benefits of a test-all approach, although compelling, are thus far speculative and expensive, with an average of $985 per kit.
Smart testing is more likely to increase accountability among stakeholders and result in victim engagement. It will encourage multidisciplinary decision making and relationship building, and it will promote cost savings.
Test-all policies have unintended consequences that can lead to the familiar backlog in a few short years. Tens of thousands of Texans are victims of sexual assault each year, but only a small fraction of those sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement.
And the problem goes beyond volume. An increased understanding of sexual assault crimes means that stakeholders recognize that only a small percentage of victims report the offender was a stranger. Often there is no dispute about who the perpetrator was offenders most often perpetrate against victims known or related to them.
The implementation of evidence-based victim notification and engagement protocols are also important.
Houston made three specific programmatic changes that other cities should follow: a standardized victim notification protocol that ensures victims’ comfort with the criminal justice system and minimizes risk for re-traumatization; a sexual assault information line and email that gives victims a choice to re-engage through a phone call or email to learn about their testing results; and a justice advocate position embedded with special unit investigators to notify and re-engage victims.
Professionals frame victims’ experiences with validation, respect and useful information, regardless of testing and prosecution outcomes.
Sexual assault costs Texas about $8 billion a year, excluding testing. The state’s funding for sexual assault services is unstable and underfunded. More than 50 of our counties are unserved while demand is up. Any cost savings that are a result of better policies should be directed toward under-resourced rape crisis centers.
Texas can learn from Houston that accountability has to translate into evidence-based system changes. Houston has become an epicenter of change that highlights the values of principled treatment of sexual assault victims while steadily balancing individual liberties.
Houston also makes smart testing, instead of test-all, conceivable. It should be part of the conversation to lead us to our ultimate goal of safe and healthy Texas communities.
Social scientists Noël Busch-Armendariz and Caitlin Sulley led the research for the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the School of Social Work, and economist Bruce Kellison participated for the Bureau for Business Research in Houston. Both research units are with The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) February 27, 2015