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US Senate: Move Quickly on Sexual Assault Bill

Franken Bill Would Reduce Backlog in Testing Rape Evidence for DNA Matches

(New York) - The introduction in the Senate today of the Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009 is a significant step toward eliminating the backlog of evidence in rape cases, Human Rights Watch said today.  

The bipartisan legislation, introduced by Senators Al Franken (D-MN), Charles Grassley (R-IA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), would require the federal government to collect data on untested sets of evidence, known as rape kits, in police and crime lab storage facilities and prioritize testing this evidence in federal DNA funding programs.

"The rape kit backlog is a national problem, and it requires a strong federal response," said Sarah Tofte, researcher with the US Program at Human Rights Watch, "The evidence in thousands and thousands of cases sits untested in police storage facilities while victims wait in vain for justice. This bill will go a long way toward moving their cases forward."

Every year, nearly 200,000 individuals report to the police that they have been raped. Almost all are asked to submit to the collection of DNA evidence from their bodies, which is then stored in a small package called a rape kit. The process is invasive and sometimes traumatic and takes four to six hours to complete. But the potential benefits are enormous: testing the DNA evidence in a rape kit can identify an unknown perpetrator; confirm the presence of a known assailant; corroborate the victim's account of the rape; and exonerate innocent suspects.

In 2004, Congress passed legislation to address the rape kit backlog. The Debbie Smith Act, named after a rape victim whose case was adversely affected by the backlog, was intended to provide grant money to states for rape kit testing, but its intentions were not realized. Because money from the program can be used for any DNA testing, though, the Debbie Smith Act as currently written does not guarantee that funding will be used to test rape kits. And with no external requirements, some grantees have not used their funding, even though they have large backlogs.

In March 2009, Human Rights Watch reporting revealed a backlog of more than 12,500 untested rape kits in Los Angeles Police and Sheriff Department facilities, although those agencies had received nearly $8 million in Debbie Smith Act funds from 2005 to 2008. In October, the Detroit Police Department reported that it had as many as 10,000 untested rape kits in its storage facilities; it has never applied for Debbie Smith Act funds. Because no federal or state laws require law enforcement agencies to account for the number of untested rape kits in their storage facilities, there are no current comprehensive data on the number of untested rape kits in the United States.

"Untested rape kits represent lost justice for rape victims," said Tofte. "It's up to Congress to provide the necessary incentives and support so that every booked rape kit is tested, and DNA evidence is used whenever appropriate to bring offenders to justice."

Among other requirements, the Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009 would:

  • Require states receiving Debbie Smith Act funds to develop and implement a plan to eliminate their rape kit backlogs, including measures to reduce any backlog by 50 percent within two years;
  • Require applicants for Debbie Smith Act funds to specify the portion of the funds they will use to test untested rape kits;
  • Require recipients of Edward Byrne grants, under a program to provide law enforcement support, to certify that they have a policy that requires every booked rape kit to be submitted to the crime laboratory for testing;
  • Establish a system of financial incentives to encourage state and local governments to take aggressive steps to eliminate their rape kit backlogs;
  • Create incentives to ensure timely processing of rape kits;
  • Beginning in 2011, require every jurisdiction receiving a Byrne grant to report annually the number of untested rape kits in its possession to the National Institute of Justice, which will deliver annual reports on the rape kit backlog to Congress and the states.

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