Clearing the rape kit backlog

Some excellent news from the Mayor’s office.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston Police Department today announced details of a plan that will eliminate the backlog of untested sexual assault kits (SAK). Under the plan, which will be formally considered by Houston City Council next week, the untested kits will be sent to two outside labs for testing. It is anticipated the work will be completed in 12-14 months and cost the city $4.4 million, which will be covered with grant funding already awarded to HPD and dollars set aside for this purpose by City Council in the city’s current budget.

“Today is an important day for rape victims and the city as a whole,” said Mayor Parker. “With this plan we will finally be able to say the backlog is gone. The problem was years in the making and we’ve been working to solve it since I became mayor. It has been a struggle to deal with during a period of extremely difficult economic times, but we remained determined. I am committed to it never happening again.”

HPD is recommending the contract be awarded to Bode Technology Group, Inc. and Sorenson Forensics, LLC. They were selected through a competitive process. Both are recognized leaders in the field and both have worked on other large backlog projects in various places, including New York, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. Due to the volume of work, the city is able to maximize the use of a low, fixed-price contract.

“This plan will eliminate the backlog of SAKs and other DNA cases entirely,” said Houston Forensic Science LGC Chair Scott Hochberg. “This will allow the existing crime lab to focus on current casework and give the LGC a clean start and the ability to focus on other issues as it works to establish an entirely independent city crime lab.”

“Department personnel have worked diligently on this project and will be implementing an aggressive plan to complete it in an effective and efficient manner,” said Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland. “I am extremely confident this will not be an issue in the future. I am also very proud of all the men and women who have helped us reach this milestone.”

The contract will include the following:

  • Testing of 6,663 stored SAKs
  • Testing of 1,450 active SAKs
  • Testing of 1,000 SAKs HPD anticipates receiving in the next year
  • Testing of 1,020 other non-SAK cases

The proposed contract with Bode Technology Group and Sorenson Forensics is expected to be on the February 20 City Council agenda. Approval by City Council would clear the way for transfer of all SAKs and other DNA cases to the two firms for the start of testing.

The backlog of these rape kits is a longstanding scandal, and clearing it would be a major accomplishment. Amazing the positive things that can get done when there’s money in the budget, isn’t there? The Chron story adds a few more details, including the fact that clearing the backlog would mean that DNA testing for property crime cases can proceed; that’s what the “1,020 other non-SAK cases” item above refers to.

The main question I have in reading this is whether the money came from the $5 per customer strip club fee that Council adopted last June. I wouldn’t think so, for two reasons. One, CM Ellen Cohen, who proposed the fee as a way to help pay for the rape kit backlog, estimated it would collect between one and three million dollars per year. Two point two million in six months seems like an awful lot. More to the point, I’m not sure the fee is even being collected yet, or if it is if its revenue is available for the city to use since the strip clubs filed a lawsuit over the fee in October. The state held the revenues collected from their fee in escrow for years while that litigation was being resolved. In any event, I posed the question to the Mayor’s office, also asking if the fee would still be needed now that the backlog was on its way to being resolved, and got the following response:

While the litigation is pending, the clubs are not paying the fee. The $2.2 million from the General Fund is part of $5 million City Council included in the current city budget last June for testing and to help with start up of the independent crime lab. It is not from the fee. There is no implication that the fee will no longer be needed. It just may not be needed for this purpose.

So there you have it. Speaking of the lawsuit, and I want to emphasize that this is my own speculation here, it seems to me that the resolution of the backlog would be a useful pretext for settling that litigation if both parties were so inclined. If the backlog is cleared then the fee is no longer needed, right? The city could agree to quit collecting it, and then modulo any haggling the clubs might want to do over fees that had already been collected, that would be all there is to it. Like I said, entirely my own speculation. Hair Balls has more.

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