The United States Justice Department will invest nearly $80 million dollars to help end the rape kit backlog. Vice-President Joe Biden, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance made the announcement on Thursday.
Over half of the funding will come from congress, after a bill approving a $41 million allocation was passed. Civil forfeitures seized by the Manhattan district attorney's office will make up the remaining $38 million. Grants will be provided to local police to process more than 56,000 rape kits. The grants will be made available to 32 jurisdictions across 20 states.
A "rape kit" collects biological evidence after a sexual assault. In order to have one completed, a victim must endure an incredibly invasive 2 to 4 hour exam. The exam involves being swabbed, prodded, and photographed, and can often make the victim feel as though they are re-living the assault. After collection, the kit is sent to the police for testing where many sit for years before being tested. Police are increasingly relying on DNA evidence to solve property crimes, leaving rape kits sitting on lab shelves.
Actress Mariska Hargitay, who plays sex crimes investigator Olivia Benson on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, was present for the announcement. Hargitay founded The Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization dedicated to ending domestic violence and sexual assault. One of their goals is to end the backlog of rape kits across the States. After Thursday's announcement she said:
To me, the backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstration of how we regard these crimes in this country. Testing rape kits sends a crucial and fundamental message that what happened to you matters, your case matters.
Congress tried to address the problem in with a 2004 law called the Debbie Smith Act. Debbie Smith is a Virginia woman, who had to wait for 6 years before her kit was tested. By that time, her attacker was already in jail for another offence. The law was reauthorized in 2014, and approved the allocation of $151 million annually to test the backlog of rape kits.
In 2013, the Government Accountability Office released a report finding that the increased funds given to laboratories were not always being used to clear the backlog of rape kits. As Smith said, "the administrators of the grant have not done what they were supposed to do. They closed some of the loopholes, but the administrators of the grant continue to find more and more loopholes."
Lynch committed to investigate the reasons for the backlog. She'll begin with 8 sites as pilot projects before expanding, and said that one of the Justice Department's "top priorities" was to ultimately eliminate the backlog across the States. She said:
For anyone who has felt isolated and afraid, for anyone who has lost faith and lost hope as a result of a sex crime, this is our pledge to you. We will not forget you.