US Senate Should Act on Rape Investigations says Human Rights Watch

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the backlog of untested DNA evidence in rape cases across the nation should move the United States closer to addressing the issue, Human Rights Watch said. Thousands of sets of evidence, called “rape kits,” sit untested in police and crime lab storage facilities, Human Rights Watch said.

The hearing, chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy, follows recent news reports highlighting the national scope of the rape kit backlog, including approximately 12,500 untested kits in Los Angeles; 10,000 in Detroit; 6,000 in San Diego; and 4,000 in Houston.

“This hearing should serve as a wake-up call that rape victims need federal action to help them find justice,” said Sarah Tofte, researcher with the US program at Human Rights Watch. “Victims across the country wait in vain for justice while the evidence in their cases sits untested.”

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, 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 have not been realized. As written, the law permits using money from the program for any DNA testing, not just for testing rape kits. The result is that some grantees have not used their funding to test rape kits, or at all, 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.

“We hear from rape victims, treatment providers, and law enforcement agencies across the country who believe that Congress needs to increase its efforts to help eliminate the rape kit backlog,” 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.”

The Senate hearing should include a discussion of the Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009. 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 rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities and prioritize testing this evidence in federal DNA funding programs. There is companion legislation in the House, introduced by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Representative Dean Heller (R-NV).

The bill would:

    * Require states receiving Debbie Smith Act funds to develop and implement a plan to eliminate their rape kit backlogs;
    * Require applicants for Debbie Smith Act funds to specify the portion of the funds they will use to test rape kits;
    * 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;
    * Require every jurisdiction 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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