The 86th Texas Legislature is underway, and one group of state lawmakers say they are determined to make sure public safety needs in rural areas are better met, especially when it comes to the state’s backlog of rape evidence kits.
While not designated an emergency item by Governor Greg Abbott during his State of the State Address last week, Abbott did mention his desire that lawmakers work this session to reduce the number of untested kits. An estimated 2,000 rape evidence kits remain unprocessed in Texas.
To do this, members of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee say they hope to allocate more money to the Texas Department of Safety, which is responsible for the kits.
“I don’t really want to be saving pennies when we’re dealing not just with dollars but we’re dealing with individual liberty and dealing with fundamental justice,” said Rep. Travis Clardy, a Republican representative from Nacogdoches.
The rape kit backlog was among the top issues the house committee discussed Wednesday when they met for the first time. Members called it one example of how rural public safety lags behind their big-city counterparts.
Backlog of DNA kits in Texas
Rep. Clardy said his constituents often feel like their evidence kits get put on the back burner behind those of larger cities. Some counties are paying more money out of pocket to expedite the testing process. But smaller, rural counties don’t always have enough extra money to do that.
Some evidence kits in his East Texas counties have been waiting to be tested for about four years, he added. That’s a problem, Clardy said, because it could reduce the chance for the cases being successfully prosecuted.
“Witnesses die. Memories fade. Evidence is lost,” Clardy said. “I’m willing to put our collective money where our mouth is.”
To begin fixing the backlog issues, representatives from the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which licenses labs in the state, asked legislators to conduct a study on ways to improve how the state handles forensic analysis. The commission’s general counsel Lynn Garcia also called for granting DPS’s request for additional funds.
“They have had a crisis, really, in terms of their ability to fully support the demands on their laboratory over the last decade, which have only increased and dramatically,” Garcia said.
Updating 911 call systems
Untested kits weren’t the only concern for committee members representing rural areas. Legislators also expressed interest in finding ways to improve technology to better meet public safety needs in rural communities.
One way to do that is by updating the state’s 911 call system, according to a representative from the Commission on State Emergency Communications.
The commission is piloting a program that would allow emergency responders in rural areas to talk to hospital trauma centers throughout their region in order to efficiently determine where a patient should be taken. In addition, the commission is funding an initiative that would let community members share information from their smartphone with emergency responders.
Updating emergency communication systems is crucial for rural areas, said Poncho Nevárez, a Democratic representative for Eagle Pass. He said it would allow law enforcement and emergency responders to more effectively do their job.
“We have a little heart that beats, and we’d like to join the 21st century, too,” Nevárez said.