Fighting Sexual Violence with DNA

DNA Evidence

DNA Strand

DNA evidence is widely called the "fingerprint of the 21st century" and has the unequaled ability to identify rapists and exonerate innocent suspects. But the use of DNA evidence has not kept pace with its potential. In the last decade, DNA evidence from hundreds of thousands of rape and murder cases was collected by police but never sent to labs for analysis. As this evidence backlog -- one of the biggest impediments to getting rapists off the streets -- became overwhelming for states and localities, RAINN concluded that a federal solution was necessary. To help launch the effort, RAINN led a successful national campaign to educate the media and lawmakers about the backlog of unanalyzed DNA casework and bring this enormous problem to public attention. RAINN's president and founder, Scott Berkowitz, also testified before the U.S. Congress regarding the DNA testing backlog.

RAINN's Support for Legislation to Expand DNA Databases

The ability of the DNA database to identify criminals is directly related to the size of "CODIS," which is the FBI's name for the national database that includes DNA collected from criminals in every state by local and state law enforcement. As the database has grown to include DNA from 4.2 million convicted criminals, the "hit rate" (percentage of cases in which DNA found at the crime scene can be matched to that of a criminal in the database), has gone up dramatically.

DNA Test Tubes

The next step in the effort to maximize the use of DNA evidence to solve rape cases is to collect DNA from everyone arrested for a felony or detained by federal authorities, just as fingerprints are routinely collected today. So far, at least seven states have expanded their laws to collect DNA from felony arrestees.

States that have eliminated their casework backlog and expanded collection of DNA are leading the country in the use of DNA evidence. Once all states move to collecting DNA from all felony arrestees, it is estimated that the hit rate will increase to more than 40% nationally. In other words, out of every 10 cases in which the police have no suspect but do have DNA from the crime scene, at least four cases will be solved by searching for matching DNA in the criminal database.

The DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005

RAINN supported enactment of the federal DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005, a measure that makes it easier to include and keep the DNA profiles of criminal arrestees in CODIS (where such profiles can be compared to crime scene evidence). By lifting legal barriers to maintaining DNA data from criminal arrestees, this act will make it easier for state and federal law enforcement officials to catch rapists, murderers, and other violent
criminals. The measure became law in 2006 as part of the reauthorization of
the Violence Against Women Act.

RAINN's Support for The Justice for All Act of 2004

RAINN worked closely with the Bush Administration, members of Congress of both parties, and other organizations on the development of DNA backlog elimination legislation. RAINN's president testified before Congress about the backlog of untested DNA samples. RAINN also advocated for the Act's passage, with the involvement of our grassroots base of 1,100 local affiliates, allied organizations, and volunteers across the nation.

This two-year effort was a great success: landmark legislation, known as the Justice For All Act of 2004, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush. This new law, which is considered the most important anti-rape legislation ever considered by Congress, will lead to solving as many as 57,000 open rape cases. By taking thousands of rapists off the streets, it will likely prevent tens of thousands of future rapes.

Among its major provisions, this 2004 measure:

  • Creates the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program and authorizes $755 million over five years for grants to states and local authorities to eliminate the backlog of untested rape evidence kits.
  • Expands the criteria for inclusion of DNA profiles in the national DNA database, and provides funding to analyze the backlog of DNA samples from convicted criminals.
  • Provides grants for training law enforcement, judges and medical personnel on the use of DNA analysis in sexual assault cases.
  • Provides funding to expand local and state witness assistance programs and crime victim notification programs, and extends enhanced rights to crime victims.
  • Authorizes grants to state sexual assault coalitions for programs under the Violence Against Women Act and expands VAWA to provide legal assistance for victims of dating violence.

Since the enactment of The Justice for All Act of 2004, RAINN has called on congressional appropriators to ensure that the DNA testing provisions are fully funded at their authorized levels. With RAINN's strong support, both houses of Congress approved $176 million for DNA backlog elimination in fiscal year 2007, a $68 million (or 60%) increase over the prior year's federal funding level. In the current budget climate, the support for this level of DNA funding by appropriations leaders in both chambers is extremely positive.

For more information on fighting sexual violence with DNA:

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