Originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle in April 2024.

Commit a crime, get caught and go to jail — directly to jail. It’s the justice lesson we learned growing up, but it’s far from reality in cities across the nation, where clearance rates are abominably low.

News out of Houston is compounding the issue of unsolved crimes after the Houston Police Department announced that, since 2016, its work on more than 264,000 incident reports had been paused using this code: “Suspended — Lack of Personnel.” Officers stopped investigating cases, even though many had substantial evidence.

HPD is quick to tell us most were property crimes, but too many of these dropped cases involved violence and victims — including 4,017 cases of adult sex crimes. To date, HPD has cleared, suspended or inactivated more than 85% of those. More outrageous was the subsequent discovery that 1,147 of those cases contained sexual assault kits with, so far, a confirmed 97 DNA links to other cases from known sexual predators.  The investigation is ongoing. 

One Houstonian who understands victims’ heartache is Chau Nuguyen, a trained trauma therapist and advocate for the Forensic Center of Excellence. “To hear that nothing happened and that these cases went stagnant — these foolproof evidence cases where nothing happened — and that there are more victims out there, perhaps? It’s unthinkable. It’s unbelievable,” Nuguyen said. “We hear it time and again that victims just want justice. What we’re seeing right now is the system has failed them.”

To Nuguyen’s point, in 2022, well over 14,000 rape cases were reported in Texas. Among those cases, a little over 2,500 — only 18% — were closed cases by law enforcement and sent to prosecutors. That means that 82% of rapes in Texas — 82% of victims — did not see their perpetrator held accountable within the year. While the number of reported rape cases since 2018 has stayed fairly constant, rape clearance rates across Texas have dropped from 28% to 18%.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and Gov. Greg Abbott proclaimed that this is a time for Texans to “raise awareness of sexual assault, collaborate on efforts to prevent sexual violence, and recognize the courage of survivors across the state.”

Starting in 2013, when Texas had an estimated 20,000 sexual assault kits waiting to be tested, lawmakers worked for six years to address the backlog by passing a monumental bill, the Lavinia Masters Act. Today, the most recent Texas Department of Public Safety report shows approximately 3,900 unanalyzed kits — with 2,000 over the 90-day statutory timeframe — currently awaiting forensic testing. It’s still uncertain how the suspended cases in Houston will affect this number.

Clearance rates are the worst-kept secrets in law enforcement. In cities across Texas and the nation, clearance rates took a dive in 2020 — the same year protesters across the country called to “defund” law enforcement following the death of George Floyd. Predictably, seasoned officers succumbed to low morale and stress, with record resignations (up 18%) and retirements (up 45%). Fewer officers, longer response times and a handful of other issues have eroded public confidence.

But here’s what we know: Very few criminals, in the commission of a crime, give second thoughts to a list of possible charges or a length of a sentence. They worry about one thing: getting caught

Lawmakers must address resources for law enforcement to recruit, retain and train more seasoned investigators and detectives to address declining clearance rates. According to Right on Crime’s recent survey, 85% of Texas voters support shifting law enforcement resources to solving and preventing violent crimes.

Additionally, Texas should explore ways to empower victims when cases are unsolved. For example, legislation currently being pursued in Illinois would allow the families of homicide victims to request a secondary review of their unsolved case, triggering a reinvestigation if the reviewer determines the case should be pursued further.

The lack of accountability and the absurdity of the 264,000 suspended cases in Houston must be a wake-up call for law enforcement agencies and lawmakers. As Nuguyen and other victim advocates point out, to fail one victim is to fail one too many.