Members of Congress have garnered some criticism for heading out of town for six weeks before addressing some top policy priorities, like the United States’ strikes against militants in Iraq and Syria. But there is one deadline lawmakers managed to meet before adjourning for the campaign trail ahead of the midterm elections: Replenishing funding to process the massive rape kit backlog before it expired at the end of the month.
Late last week, Congress gave final approval to The Debbie Smith Act, a program that provides federal grants to law enforcement agencies to work through the backlog of DNA evidence. The measure — spearheaded by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) — has broad bipartisan support and now heads to President Obama’s desk. If the program hadn’t gotten renewed, it would have expired on October 1.
When women report a sexual assault to the authorities, they typically undergo a physical examination to collect DNA evidence that may help identify their assailant. But often, this evidence goes nowhere. There are an estimated 400,000 evidence kits collecting dust in storage units across the country; analyzing them is often too expensive or time-consuming for departments that are already stretched thin.
The national program is named after Debbie Smith, a woman who waited six years for her rapist to be identified. “I was terrified for myself and my family, and was suicidal for a time. It choked all joy out of my life, and all I wanted to do was find peace and rest from the memories that constantly played in my mind,” Smith recounted in a recent interview. After her assailant was eventually identified with the help of the national DNA database, Smith became an advocate for better criminal justice responses to sexual assaults.
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the Debbie Smith Act is among “the most important anti-rape legislation in history.” Since its initial passage in 2004, the program has granted more than $600 million to help crime labs test DNA. RAINN applauded Congress’ recent passage of the measure, saying in a statement that the move “will help crime labs test evidence from thousands of open rape cases, and will aid efforts to bring many rapists to justice.”
For instance, after Detroit’s police force committed itself to processing the city’s untested rape kits, law enforcement made it through 1,600 DNA samples. They were able to identify 100 serial rapists, and 14 convictions have been made so far.
But there’s more work to be done. There are still serious backlogs in cities across the country; in Memphis, TN alone, there are an estimated 12,000 untested kits and police recently found 200 additional kits that had been misplaced to add to the backlog. There is no federal law requiring the testing or tracking of rape kits, and only three states have enacted their own requirements in this area. Advocacy groups are frustrated that Congress hasn’t yet approved an additional $41 million in funding for rape kit processing in the FY15 spending bill.