Congress has the opportunity to renew important funding for helping solve a critical issue in the U.S. — the number of untested rape kits languishing on shelves of police departments, hospitals and state crime labs.
For sex-based crimes, rape kits — the forensic exam performed on sexual assault victims that collects evidence — are incredibly important. Having DNA evidence increases the likelihood of prosecution of the perpetrator. Even if there is no prosecution on a specific case, the DNA can be added to federal databases for future use — and that matters because individuals who commit sex-based crimes often have numerous victims.
Yet there are thousands and thousands of rape kits waiting to be tested, holding evidence that might help hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes and offer some solace and peace for victims. Sometimes untested rape kits never make it to a crime lab, but many times the issue is that labs don’t have enough staff or resources to keep up with testing, creating a backlog.
The state of Missouri is to be commended for prioritizing its own backlog in recent years, with the help of federal funding. Former Jasper County judge M. Keithley Williams is leading the Missouri attorney general’s sexual assault kit initiative to clear a backlog of more than 5,000 untested kits. For Missouri’s program and other states’ efforts, money is available to help address those backlogs. It’s made possible by the Debbie Smith Act, which was first passed in 2004 and reauthorized in 2008 and 2014. The program provides grants every year to state crime labs to help them process thousands of rape kits.
The law is named for a Virginia woman who was sexually assaulted in the woods behind her house; she waited for nearly six years for the DNA from her rape kit to be matched with DNA in an FBI database.
But the current iteration of the law is set to expire later this fall. The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate has already voted to reauthorize it; U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, was a co-sponsor of the legislation.
Because the law has always had strong bipartisan support, this should be a no-brainer. The House should move quickly to reauthorize this funding.
Why? Because it works. Since 2005, the year after the law was first passed, there have been more than 455,000 matches of crime scene evidence to offenders’ DNA. Of these matches, 42% are the result of testing made possible by Debbie Smith Act grants, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
Our representatives on Capitol Hill should do the right thing and pass the newest version of the Debbie Smith Act immediately.
(If you have been the victim of a crime, Freeman Health System and Mercy Hospital Joplin both offer sexual assault nurse examiner services. Or you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 to find a location near you that performs sexual assault forensic exams.)