DNA backlog at crime lab

October 13, 2009 6:41:03 AM PDT
The Houston Police Department Crime Lab says it needs $2 million in order to clear the backlog of about 4,000 untested rape kits. This is a problem the lab has been dealing with since we first told you about the backlog way back in an exclusive Eyewitness News investigation in 2001, when we uncovered thousands of untested kits.

Eight years later, there is still a backlog. To put in perspective, the city tests about 1,000 rape kits per year, so the remaining work is about four years' worth. That's why the crime lab is asking to hire more workers.

The crime lab's past problems were front and center for Houston City Council's Public Safety Committee Monday morning in the form of a request for $2 million to hire four DNA technicians to clear a 4,000 rape kit backlog.

"Those rape kits are from previous problems we've had with the crime lab has had," said Council Member Melissa Noriega.

The director of the city's crime lab says she would like to hire 20 more staff members in sections like toxicology and ballistics. But most pressing for the rape kit backlog are the hiring of four more people to the DNA section, who she says could test the backlog in a year.

"It's hard to say how critical this is. There are 4,000 kits that need to be processed. We think long term if a victim submitted themselves to a rape kit, why is it not tested?" said Crime Lab Director Irma Rios.

The holdup is money. There's no definitive answer where that $2 million would come from.

"The general fund is the fund that would normally handle the hiring of staff. Right now we're in a budget crunch," said Chief Financial Officer Joseph Fenninger.

He says the city is not in a hiring freeze, but because money is tight, the crime lab is forced to rely on staff attrition before hiring anyone.

At the Houston Area Women's Center, a rape counselor told us that finding the money to clear the rape kit backlog would help the city's rape victims get on with their lives.

"Many of the clients that come here, the sexual assault survivors that come, have a lot of hope and a lot of trust in the criminal justice system that justice will be served. And so they are relying on those rape kits getting processed," said Leticia Manzano of the Houston Area Women's Center.

Manzano says that rapists statistically commit their crimes eight times before they are caught.

Meanwhile, the city may look at selling property in order to come up with the $2 million, but nothing has been decided yet.

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