vault_06There is strong evidence to suggest that competently collected SAK evidence is associated with positive criminal justice system outcomes. Empirical studies examining the determinants of sexual assault case processing decisions have demonstrated that completion of a forensic exam increased the odds of a successful prosecution and conviction in the United States, Canada, and the U.K.[1]

Studies of SANE programs suggest that SANE programs increase prosecution rates because they provide more reliable forensic evidence to crime investigators. One qualitative study, for instance, found that thorough forensic examinations substantially improve prosecutors’ ability to establish guilt in sexual assault cases.[2] Similarly, in a multi-site SANE evaluation study, findings indicated that almost all of the impact of SANE programs on increased prosecution is attributable to greater collection of DNA evidence.[3] DNA evidence can not only establish the identity of the defendant, but it can establish the elements of the crime, reconstruct the sequence of events, and corroborate or disprove witness statements.

Despite the increased collection of forensic evidence and the growing understanding of its importance, many SAKs sit untested in law enforcement evidence rooms. The discovery of this evidence has generated significant responses at the local, state, and federal levels. In 2015, nearly $80 million in funding was awarded to state and local agencies to conduct forensic testing on previously untested SAKs.

In 2010, recognizing the need for research into SAK testing, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) funded multidisciplinary, action-research projects in Detroit, MI and in Houston, TX. These studies, completed in 2015, provide the backdrop for our current work in Texas. While the two NIJ projects shared similar goals, they produced distinct research findings.

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office received an NIJ action-research grant in 2011. The project undertook a comprehensive, manual audit of all sexual assault kits in storage, finding 8,707 kits that had not been submitted or tested. The Detroit researchers suggested that multiple forces coalesced in Detroit to create the problem, including frequent police chief turnover, staff reductions in the sex crime investigative unit, low staffing and resources in the Detroit crime lab, and insufficient community-based victim advocacy.

test-rape-kid_06In 2011, the Houston Police Department (HPD) crime lab received an NIJ action-research grant to study the problem of untested SAKs and evaluate strategies of response. After discovering the existence of untested SAKs in HPD evidence storage in 2009, HPD completed an audit, identifying 6,663 untested SAKs in storage. Based on diagnostic data collected throughout 2011, Houston researchers identified a variety of key reforms needed in HPD, including investigator training, a specialized cold case squad in HPD and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, a victim notification protocol, evidence tracking protocols, and closer collaboration between investigators and victim advocates.

Both the Detroit and Houston projects found that approximately half of the untested SAKs yielded DNA profiles sufficient for upload to the federal CODIS DNA database. And, in both instances, about one in four SAKs resulted in hits to an offender or to another crime.

The Texas Sexual Assault Kit Evaluation Project seeks to build upon past research in the field by studying the impact of two SAK reform laws passed in Texas. Our project includes two separate research studies: one evaluating the impact of SB1636 and one evaluating the impact of SB1191. With respect to SB1636, we are examining the costs to jurisdictions of a policy of universal testing as well as tracking outcomes of CODIS hits on archival cases to see whether the law results in a significant number of arrests and prosecutions. With respect to SB1191, we are examining whether it has made it more convenient for sexual assault victims to receive forensic exams at nearby locations.

 

[1] Wiley et al., 2003; McGregor et al., 2002; Feist et al., 2007; Campbell et al., 2009.

[2] Crandall and Helitzer, 2003.

[3] Nugent-Borakove et al., 2006