The Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing yesterday on the national rape kit backlog, the reauthorization of the Debbie Smith Act, and current legislation introduced in the Senate that is intended to incentivize the processing of rape kits. hearing.
Committee Chair Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said in his statement, “No matter how much money we send to crime labs for testing, if samples that could help make cases instead sit on the shelf in police evidence rooms and never make it to the lab, that money will do no good. Police officers must understand the importance of testing this vital evidence and must learn when testing is appropriate and necessary…there must be national standards, protocols, and best practices giving clear guidance to police officers about when kits and other relevant DNA samples must go to labs. Every jurisdiction must have real incentives to provide comprehensive training and put into place these standards for the officers who handle DNA evidence.”
The Senate bill, the “Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act,” introduced by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and co-sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) was addressed in the hearing. If passed, the act would require that states pay the cost of rape kit examinations upfront, that survivors are informed of their right to a free rape kit examination, and creates monetary incentives to reduce rape kit backlogs, process rape kits quickly, and report backlog numbers. It also creates a nation-wide annual reporting mechanism for rape kit backlogs, funds the training of sexual assault forensic medical personnel, and defines “trained examiner” in a way that will allow rural and tribal areas, where incidence of rape is disproportionately high, to access grant funds. There is also a version of the bill introduced in the House.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are approximately 200,000 reported rapes each year and, in most cases, DNA evidence is collected and stored in a “rape kit.” In 2004, Congress passed the Debbie Smith Act, which authorized the use of federal funds to test DNA kits. However, the law did not specify that the DNA kits be rape kits. Currently, Los Angeles has a backlog of over 12,500 untested rape kits in spite of having received about $8 million Debbie Smith Act funds. Other cities, such as Detroit, have a backlog of 10,000 untested rape kits or more. There are no current national statistics regarding the number of untested rape kits, because no state or federal laws mandate law enforcement agencies collect this information. Some estimates suggest the total number of untested kits is over 180,000.
Debbie Smith herself testified at the hearing, saying, “each box holds within it vital evidence that is crucial to the safety of women everywhere…Can you imagine going through an exam like what goes on in one of those things for nothing? To know that you were just traumatized again, for it to sit on a shelf, it’s not fair,” according to CBS News.