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Stray Thoughts

Tax-cut effects go beyond our pocketbooks

6/6/2018

When Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the large tax-cut bill into law last week, she talked about how the legislation will allow hard-working Iowans to keep more of their paychecks.

What the governor did not mention was how there are other real-life consequences for the people of Iowa that go beyond paying less in state income taxes.

One such consequence comes to a head on June 25.

That’s when a 20-year-old Des Moines man, Jessie Teah, goes on trial on charges of second-degree sexual assault and invasion of privacy. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

Teah is the first of four men to stand trial in the brutal gang-rape of an 18-year-old Ankeny woman last Oct. 1. A fifth man is still being sought by police.

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The teenager believes she was drugged by the men, three whom she first met the previous day and two whom she had never seen before.

All of the men took turns raping her, she told police. At one point, she was held down by her neck and partially lost consciousness, she said.

What does this terrible crime have to do with the state budget?

It’s a roll of the dice whether all of the evidence gathered in the police investigation is available for jurors to consider when they decide Teah’s guilt or innocence.

Eight months after the Ankeny teen’s assault — and just two and a half weeks before the first trial — the state crime laboratory’s testing on what police call the “rape kit” still has not been finished.

Laboratory officials won’t even say whether the testing has begun. That’s significant, because it typically takes four to six weeks to process evidence gathered after a sexual assault.

The prosecutor still does not know whether DNA tests draw a direct connection to Jessie Teah. In rape cases, such testing on semen samples and skin cells taken from a victim can provide valuable evidence that connects an accused person with the crime.

The state’s budget mess is a key reason for these delays at the crime lab.

The lack of enough money to hire more technicians to process evidence led to rape kits stacking up. At the end of May, evidence from 407 sexual assaults was still untested.

And the problem is not getting better.

The Des Moines Register reported last month that the average wait time for DNA evidence in new sexual assault cases to be processed at the crime lab is 7.6 months. A year ago, the wait time averaged 5.5 months.

These delays are significant, and they can have a direct bearing on public safety.

When Jessie Teah goes on trial, prosecutors have just one chance to prove their case against him. They won’t get a second opportunity if he is acquitted.

Teah’s accuser, the Ankeny teen, told the Register last month, “I’m worried that without the rape kit, he’ll be let go.”

A delay in processing the DNA in rape cases before arrests are made also creates the potential for dangerous criminals to remain at large and assault other people. With DNA test results, police sometimes can match those results with the DNA of known criminals and make arrests more quickly.

This is one of those unintended consequences of the state’s budget problems that wasn’t among Gov. Reynolds’ talking points last week.

In 2017 and again in 2018, the Legislature spent two-thirds of each year’s session looking for ways to cut state spending for that year because revenues were lagging. That meant government agencies had difficulty filling job vacancies or getting money to expand their staffs.

Earlier this year, the Legislature declined to consider a bill that would require the commissioner of the Iowa Department of Public Safety to develop and implement a plan to cut the turnaround time on DNA evidence testing in violent crimes to three months or less.

The crime lab administrator did get a green light to hire two more evidence technicians. But it takes eight to 10 months to train a new tech, so the backlog of rape kits and other DNA evidence won’t quickly disappear.

I don’t fault Gov. Reynolds for trying to put a happy face on the tax-cut legislation at her bill-signing ceremony last week. But there clearly are two sides to tax cuts.

For an Ankeny teenager and her parents, and for the friends and relatives of the 406 other rape victims whose cases were waiting on DNA tests last month, the state budget cuts have a decidedly less-than-cheery face.

Tax cuts have consequences — and not always consequences that governors like to brag about. ♦

Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com

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