Vice President Joe Biden proposed $35 million in grant funding on Wednesday afternoon to help clear the hundreds of thousands of backlogged rape kits off the shelves of police stations and labs.
Biden, who has made countering domestic abuse and sexual assault a cornerstone of his political career, told reporters that testing the backlogged kits helps police track down serial rapists, which provides “the ultimate closure for a woman.”
Advocates estimate that hundreds of thousands of DNA rape kits taken from victims sit in police precincts and labs, waiting to be tested. Money is often an issue, because each kit costs about $500 to test. Natasha's Justice Project spokeswoman Natasha Alexenko says her organization is raising private funds to help clear a backlog of 2,000 rape kits in Alameda County in California.
But Biden’s proposed grant money is in the White House budget, which faces a nearly impossible road to passage in the Republican-controlled House. And the additional $35 million in funding is not just for testing the rape kits. Police stations could also use the funds to develop “cold case” units to reopen old investigations, provide counseling to sexual assault victims, train police officers and update their evidence-tracking systems.
Increasing the rape kit testing has been a rare point of bipartisan agreement among Democrats and Republicans. The 2004 Debbie Smith Act first began doling out money to local governments for DNA sexual assault kit testing in response to reports of enormous backlogs in some cities and states. And a bipartisan bill passed late last year will create a national database of DNA evidence from rape cases. Even now these examples of huge backlogs persist: 17,000 kits remain untested in Texas, and 12,000 in the city of Memphis alone.
The vice president said part of the problem was that police departments didn’t realize how valuable DNA evidence is in rape cases.
“All of a sudden, everyone began to realize, my lord, if we were able to test these rape kits ... we could solve a whole hell of a lot of crimes of violence against women,” Biden said.
Some of the Debbie Smith Act money has already resulted in convictions. Authorities tested 1,600 kits in Detroit using the funds over the past three years, which resulted in 14 convictions so far. DNA from the group of kits matched rape DNA in 23 other states.
But Alexenko says federal money is not the answer to the problem, because states aren’t required to apply for the grant money. States need to pass laws requiring every local police station to take an inventory of its untested kits. Seventeen states are currently weighing this type of legislation.
“All the money in the world won’t solve this problem,” Alexenko said. “It’s a great step, but at the end of the day it takes a lot more than money.”