February 2, 2015; USA Today
Along with free community college and bolstering the middle class, President Barack Obama’s $4 trillion spending budget for the 2016 fiscal year will prioritize key initiatives to help end the national rape kit backlog, an issue NPQ has been following for several years.
As part of the funding for the Department of Justice, the budget allocates $41 million to address the rape kit backlog through “grants that support community efforts to develop plans and identify the most critical needs to address sexual assault prevention, investigation, prosecution and services, including addressing their untested sexual assault evidence kits (SAKs) at law enforcement agencies or backlogged crime labs.”
The Community Teams to Reduce the SAK Backlog program was first established last year to provide localities resources not only to work through the bureaucratic red tape of testing kits, but also investigate and prosecute the cases once the evidence has been obtained.
In addition to $41 million for the program, which was first allocated back in December, another $20 million will be set aside to “address the backlogs of rape kit-related DNA evidence” as part of a $105 million budget for a community-based DNA initiative aimed at increasing and expanding the use of forensics evidence within state and local justice systems.
The budget is just one of many major steps taken in the past few years to put a spotlight on the rape kit backlog. Last November, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office pledged an unprecedented $35 million to help local cities and states receive grants and begin testing the hundreds of thousands of backlogged rape kits that are sitting in evidence lockers and storage rooms around the country. Joyful Heart Foundation founder and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit actress Mariska Hargitay joined the DA’s office for the announcement, continuing the nonprofit’s own work dedicated to helping victims of the sexual assault.
“The White House’s investment in rape kit reform continues to send the message to survivors that they—and their experiences—matter,” said Maile M. Zambuto, president and CEO of Joyful Heart, in a press release. “We are so grateful to President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Attorney General Holder for their leadership on this issue, which will create a lasting legacy for years to come. We look forward to working with congressional leaders to ensure this funding is included in the spending bill for the coming year.”
Moreover, earlier this month, the Michigan Women’s Foundation announced a five-year project that would raise $10 million to help process the more than 11,000 untested rape kits just in Detroit as of 2009.
Not only would addressing the backlog bring some kind of relief to victims who have been waiting for years for a resolution, testing the backlogged kits will enter the DNA obtained through the kits into the Combined DNA Index System database, allowing police departments around the country to identify perpetrators for other crimes that may have otherwise eluded prosecution. Nationally, ending the backlog will have a significant positive impact on criminal justice, a seemingly universal good.
However, it is important to note that there are serious concerns whether the entire spending bill will be able to find support in the Republican majority-held Senate. President Obama has noted with his release of the budget that he aims to end the “mindless austerity” often exhibited by members of Congress in delaying or rejecting bills over partisanship. The funding to end the backlog, as part of this budget should not fall victim to shenanigans, as it often has before.
While funding is one of the significant obstacles for many local police departments seeking to test rape kits, the backlog has also been attributed to a more cavalier attitude toward crimes committed against women. Indeed, as noted by Hargitay at the Manhattan DA office’s press conference last November, the backlog is a clear message to victims and rapists:
“The rape kit backlog sends two terrible messages. To victims, it says, ‘You don’t matter. What happened to you doesn’t matter.’ And to criminals it says, ‘What you did doesn’t matter.’ Testing the kits reverses those two messages.”
Likewise, passing the bill and supporting the funding for the Justice Department’s grant program will ensure that we send the right message: These are important crimes, and it is important that justice is served.—Shafaq Hasan