In a strong show of bipartisan cooperation, today the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved S. 822, the Justice For All Reauthorization Act of 2013. The bill reauthorizes several important forensic DNA programs, most notably the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Elimination Act, which provides vital funding for public crime laboratories throughout the country working to perform DNA tests on evidence collected from rape crime scenes. “We applaud this important step in the process,” says Becca O'Connor, RAINN's vice president for public policy. “But it’s just the first step. If this important bill does not become law in the next few months, funding for this program could lapse – resulting in a logjam of backlogged DNA cases – including untested rape kits - at crime laboratories across the country.”
The Debbie Smith Act is named after rape victim Debbie Smith, who, in 1989, was kidnapped from her home and raped while her husband, a police officer, slept upstairs. Six years later, her perpetrator was finally caught through CODIS, the national DNA database.
Since the act first passed in 2004, states have received more than $584 million for backlog elimination, testing evidence of thousands of sexual assaults and other violent crimes. The federal funds are meant to supplement state spending; in 2011, for example, the Texas State Legislature committed $11 million to combat the DNA backlog, which the Texas Department of Public Safety estimated included 19,000 rape kits.
Despite this progress, a large DNA backlog remains — and is once again making national headlines. Last week, the Boston Police crime lab announced it faces an “unprecedented” backlog of rape kit testing. Earlier this month, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton issued an executive order directing the Memphis Police Department to address its backlog of untested rape kits, which media reports estimate could be as large as 8,000 kits, some dating back to the 1980s.
“Passage of S. 822 will ensure that the full promise of the Debbie Smith Act is realized,” said O’Connor. “In January, Congress passed the SAFER Act, which amends the Debbie Smith Act to make available resources for law enforcement agencies to audit their current backlog. We need to pass S. 822 to make sure there is a new level of transparency in the backlog and to help ensure we are targeting resources where they are needed most.”