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New Texas Laws Take on Sexual Assault

Several new Texas laws aiming to protect sexual assault victims will go into effect Sunday. These laws will make it easier for assault victims to be treated fairly in the justice system and improve the ways that law enforcement officials track cases of sexual assault.

One law creates stricter guidelines for testing and sharing information about rape kits, others implement a tracking system for those rape kits and extend the time after an assault during which a victim can be tested. Other laws set up a sexual assault survivor task force and a telehealth call center for sexual assault survivors and require law enforcement officials to enter sexual assaults into a Federal Bureau of Investigation database.

“In our opinion, a lot of this stuff has been a long time coming and I think makes for better law enforcement,” said Collin County Sheriff James Skinner, chair of the Sheriffs' Association of Texas legislative committee.

After the revelation earlier this year that a fertility doctor used his own sperm to impregnate a woman, instead of that of the donor she selected, Texas became the first state to include that action under its definition of sexual assault.

House Bill 8 also targets untested rape kits, establishing a framework for them to be tested in a timely fashion and ensuring that they be used as evidence in relevant court cases. It sets up a reporting requirement for law enforcement and makes it much harder for kits to be left untested for years, said Christopher Kaiser, general counsel and policy director for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.

“The underlying issue for a long time was that these kits weren't prioritized,” he said. "I think that we need to talk about accountability and transparency with this issue.”

Besides mandating that kits be tested within 90 days of collection, the law also requires law enforcement agencies and laboratories to submit quarterly reports about untested kits. Under the law, agencies in possession of untested kits must produce lists of all kits related to active cases and send them to labs for testing by early next year. The law also allows for grants to be withheld from agencies that do not comply, Kaiser said.

New provisions also extend the time for which rape kits must be preserved and strengthen the requirements concerning how law enforcement must be notified about, and take possession of, evidence collected through a medical exam.

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In conjunction with the new laws, crime labs will receive additional funding that should allow them to double the capacity for assessing kits over the next four years, Kaiser said.

“It's an unprecedented investment,” he said.

On the same day these new laws take effect, Texas will also implement a new program that tracks rape kits every step of the way through the system. Each kit will have a barcode and be scanned as it makes its way through the steps of assessments. Sexual assault survivors will have access to information about the progress of their own kits.

These steps will go a long way toward clearing out the backlog of untested kits and increasing accountability and transparency, Kaiser said.

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