President Donald Trump signed the Debbie Smith Reauthorization Act into law on Dec. 30. The legislation helps fund the testing of the massive volume of backlogged rape kits.
The law gives $151 million to the Department of Justice for each of Fiscal Years 2019-2024 for the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program; $12.5 million for DNA training and education programs; and $30 million for the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam Grant Program.
The law will fund the testing of many thousands of rape kits sitting on shelves in police departments and labs throughout the United States. Rape kits are critical tools in sexual violence investigations. This law will be instrumental in getting more cases tested and lead to crucial answers for victims of rape. The goal is to reduce the number of backlogs and delays in investigative DNA testing of rape kits.
Congress first passed the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Elimination Act In 2004 with bipartisan support. This grant program provided state and local crime labs with critical funding needed to clear the backlog of DNA evidence and offender samples.
According to a 2018 Justice Department report, since 2005, funding to local and state crime laboratories for DNA analysis through the Debbie Smith Act has enabled law enforcement to process more than 860,000 DNA cases (pdf) and has allowed more than 376,000 DNA profiles to be uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System.
In mid-2018 Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) conducted a Judiciary Committee hearing to evaluate the DNA Backlog and Capacity Enhancement Program.
In his opening statement to the committee, the senator summarized some of the committee’s key concerns about the timely testing of DNA rape kits. The purpose of the hearing was to assess the progress made in ending the backlog and ensure victims are being served.
Grassley said that there is still no definitive number given to the committee of DNA kits waiting to be analyzed. Despite the federal funding, there have been reports over the years about the number of untested rape kits being in the thousands.
“It’s concerning that we still don’t know how many evidence kits have yet to be submitted to crime labs for analysis. USA Today reported several years ago that the number could be in the hundreds of thousands,” Grassley’s statement read.
Grassley also voiced concerns about how the grant money was to be used. He said it’s possible that the Justice Department should “proactively do more to encourage capacity enhancement, if DNA backlogs are a persistent, long term problem for crime labs.”
“As jurisdictions receiving DNA backlog grants have adopted new policies that impact this program’s effectiveness in reducing DNA backlogs, we may need to consider updates to the program to reflect changing realities,” he added. “Nearly fifteen years ago, we embarked on a mission to eliminate the DNA backlog. We sought to ensure that law enforcement had all the tools necessary to quickly apprehend the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.”