The federal government and the New York District Attorney’s Office early this year secured funding for two national grant programs to help resolve the vast nationwide backlog of untested forensic evidence collected from sexual assault survivors.
Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. last week unveiled the 43 jurisdictions in 27 states that have been collectively awarded $79 million to help eliminate their backlogs of what are commonly known as “rape kits.”
But even as many sexual assault advocates and politicians have celebrated these grants, some have taken this opportunity to urge the Obama administration to implement a 2013 law that was intended to improve how police departments handle rape kits. One of the purposes of this law, called the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act, was to help law-enforcement agencies ascertain just how many rape kits are sitting, untested, in police storage units.
Following last week’s grant funding announcement, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who sponsored the Senate version of the SAFER Act, issued a statement urging the administration to implement SAFER.
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“Today’s announcement is another positive step forward to ending the rape kit backlog in cities across Texas and the country, but more needs to be done to give sexual assault survivors the justice they deserve,” Cornyn said. “The Administration must take immediate steps to fully implement the bipartisan SAFER Act to ensure these kits don’t continue to languish on evidence room shelves.”
No one knows the true scope of the rape kit backlog. In July, USA Today and Gannett affiliates uncovered about 70,000 untested kits possessed by more than 800 law-enforcement agencies nationwide. Their investigation notes that they only received records from a fraction of the more than 18,000 police departments across the country; thus the actual amount of untested kits likely numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
The SAFER Act amended the Debbie Smith Act, a 2004 grant-authorizing bill that since 2004 has authorized more than $1 billion in grants to local police departments and crime labs for a variety of purposes related to testing DNA forensic evidence from all types of crimes.
The Debbie Smith Act has frequently been misrepresented by members of Congress as a rape kit backlog bill. However, as Rewire has reported, this funding stream was never dedicated exclusively for rape kit testing, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not been transparent about how much of this money has directly funded efforts to eliminate police departments’ rape kit backlogs.
While advocates working closely on this issue—such as the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)—have praised the Debbie Smith Act for providing resources to labs to expand their capacities, they believe that not enough of this money has gone toward efforts to end the nationwide rape kit backlog.
Among these critics is Debbie Smith, the bill’s namesake, who in 1989 was raped by a stranger in the woods behind her house in Williamsburg, Virginia. Smith waited six years for a resolution in her case, thanks to backlogs of sexual assault evidence kits. She has since become an advocate for funding to test rape kits, and for rape survivors.
Smith voiced her concern at a congressional subcommittee hearing Cornyn convened in May.
“I guess this is why they don’t name bills after people who are still alive, because we come around and we say what’s going on,” Smith told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. “I would just like to see the money used more for what Congress meant it to be used for.”
Debbie Smith Act supporters expected the funding to help jurisdictions test their backlogged rape kits and to help crime labs build capacity to be able to keep pace with the ever-expansive use of forensic evidence in criminal investigations.
After that hearing, Smith told Rewire that she was frustrated that SAFER has not been implemented.
“The idea that a bill could have been enacted over two years ago, and the people who are supposed to be taking care of this and making sure money goes to this aren’t doing that, bothers me because it slows down the process of what we’re trying to do,” she said.
More recently, Smith said she is “absolutely thrilled” about the new grant-funding programs and said they represent “a huge step in the right direction toward eliminating the rape-kit backlog.” But she noted that “the journey must keep going.” Smith said she met with representatives from the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) last week and was told the agency is working on new protocols in an effort to begin implementing the SAFER Act.
The NIJ did not respond to a request for comment.
Part of SAFER’s goal was to address a need that some of the new rape kit funding announced last week is trying to fill.
The Debbie Smith grants have never fully addressed the broader scope of the rape kit backlog, which is that for years police departments have neglected to send rape kits to crime labs. The Debbie Smith funding primarily deals with backlogged DNA evidence that has been sent to a crime lab.
Congress passed SAFER to require that the Department of Justice award some of the Debbie Smith grant money to law enforcement agencies so that they could conduct audits on how many rape kits have been forgotten in police storage units.
Two years later, the DOJ has not implemented this law and has not responded to Rewire’s many inquiries as to when it intends to implement this law.
In many cases, researchers have found that police often decline to send rape kits to crime labs for testing because they do not believe the victim’s story or because they erroneously believe testing forensic evidence in so-called acquaintance or date-rape cases is not as important as testing evidence in so-called stranger rape cases, as Rewire has reported.
Hundreds of serial rapists have reportedly escaped jail time as a result.
This frustration over the Debbie Smith Act ultimately led advocates—among them the New York-based Joyful Heart Foundation—to lobby for new federal funding streams to deal with the rape kit backlog but also with the broader issues that collectively impede justice for sexual assault survivors.
Through the federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance has awarded $41 million in grants to help jurisdictions not only test backlogged kits, but also investigate and prosecute these cases, and address other victims’ needs, such as notifying and re-engaging them perhaps years after they reported the rape.
And through the Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Grant Program, on which the Joyful Heart Foundation will advise, the New York District Attorney’s Office has awarded $38 million in grants for law enforcement agencies nationwide to test previously untested rape kits.
“This is the biggest investment to date to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits that we know are sitting on shelves across the United States,” Joyful Heart Foundation founder and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star Mariska Hargitay said during last week’s press conference unveiling the awards. “Today marks a historic moment in the work to end that backlog.”
RAINN similarly celebrated the new funding last week, but stressed that the federal government need not forget the SAFER Act and its purpose.
“The Sexual Assault Kit Initiative and the Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Grant Program will help us get closer to ensuring that all rape kits are tested for DNA, all victims receive answers, and more sexual predators are brought to justice,” RAINN Vice President for Public Policy Rebecca O’Connor said in a statement. “We also look forward to the Justice Department’s implementation of the SAFER Act, which President Obama signed into law more than two years ago. Passed by a bipartisan Congress, SAFER channels funding to one of the places it’s needed most: to inventorying and testing more rape kits and increasing transparency.”