Lessons Learned from Unsubmitted Sexual Assault Kits

Photo of Dr. WellCriminal justice agencies need to be prepared to follow up on sexual assault cases with a victim-centered approach to improve responses to these crimes in their communities, according to research findings from Sam Houston State University.

Faculty in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology were part of a multi-disciplinary team to study unsubmitted sexual assault kits at the Houston Police Department, one of two projects funded by the National Institute of Justice to investigate the problem. The study measured characteristics a sample of 493 cases from 1989 to 2009, which resulted in 104 matches in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a nationwide database of DNA evidence from crime scenes. The National Institute of Justice recently released a report, authored by Drs. William Wells, Bradley Campbell, and Cortney Franklin, that described the criminal justice system outcomes that occurred in the CODIS-hit cases.

The statute of limitations expired in 44 percent of the CODIS-hit cases, which prohibited arrest and prosecution. In one-quarter of the cases, investigators could not locate victims or victims decided to not participate in the follow-up investigation. Investigators and victim advocates must be prepared to notify victims about CODIS-hits in a sensitive, well-planned manner. Finally, 11.5 percent of offenders were arrested before the CODIS hit, investigations were in progress on six cases, and one case was presented to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office for charges.

The Houston project was a cooperative effort among the Houston Forensic Science Center, the Harris Country District Attorney’s Office, Harris Health Systems, Memorial Hermann Hospital, the Houston Police Department, the Houston Area Women’s Center, Sam Houston State University and the University of Texas at Austin.

During the course of the project, the Houston Police Department implemented major changes in the way it handles sexual assault cases. The city dedicated $2.2 million to test all unsubmitted sexual assault kits and set up a hotline where sexual assault survivors could call to find out about the status of their cases. A justice advocate was hired to guide victims through the criminal justice process, and investigators were trained in victim-centered approaches toward these crimes.

In addition, juvenile and adult sex crime units were combined under a Special Victims Division, and the Harris County District Attorney’s office now is notified of all sexual assault hits in CODIS. Among the other recommendations from the study were:

  • Jurisdictions should collect data and report on the characteristics of cases with unsubmitted sexual assault kits, the forensic testing results, and the criminal investigation outcomes
  • Jurisdictions should prepare for increased workloads from testing unsubmitted sexual assault kits that will flow to investigative units, prosecutors, and victim advocates
  • Baseline information should be gathered about current practices to identify strengths and weaknesses in responses to sexual assault
  • Victim engagement and participation is crucial in sexual assault cases so it is important to adopt victim-centered approaches

“Unsubmitted Sexual Assault Kits in Houston, TX: Case Characteristics, Forensic Testing
Results, and the Investigation of CODIS Hits, Final Report” is available through the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. To earn more about the Detroit and Houston projects, see the NIJ report "Using Science to Find Solutions."

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