The Debbie Smith Act, a bill requiring that health officials test rape victim DNA samples within 10 days of receipt, has been introduced in the House and Senate. Sponsored by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) in the House and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) in the Senate, the bill seeks $210 million in federal funds over three years. Areas targeted for funding include: 1) comprehensive training of hospital examiners working with rape victims and 2) standardization and facilitation of DNA evidence collection and testing. Debbie Smith, for whom the bill is named, is a Virginia woman who was raped in 1989. Her collected DNA samples sat on laboratory shelves, untested for six years. Consequently, her attacker remained free until DNA evidence helped imprison him in 1995.
According to Congresswoman Maloney, the Debbie Smith Act highlights several system deficiencies regarding sexual assault crimes. First, “the failure to process DNA evidence quickly and correctly has left thousands of victims without justice. For example, in New York City alone, we have the potential to resolve 16,000 unsolved rape cases if we could just process the 18 month backlog of DNA evidence.” Prompt testing is particularly critical since rapists roam free in the meantime. Not only does this scenario add anxiety to the victim, but others also remain at risk. The average rapist commits 8 to 12 sexual assaults.
Speaking last week at the National Center for Women and Policing Conference held in Washington DC, Congresswoman Maloney presented additional statistics to over 400 of the nation’s top law enforcement women. Less than ten percent of New York City hospitals are adequately equipped for DNA evidence collection. In instances where DNA evidence is used in court, one in five cases are inadmissible due to improper collection technique. By contrast, law enforcement officials in Australia have no backlog of DNA evidence. Through the Debbie Smith Act, federal funds would be directed to help eliminate testing backlog, enable prompt and accurate testing of evidence, and train professionals in proper sample collection.