“There are certain problems that can’t wait, like violence against women,” Vice President Joe Biden said at the Maryland State Police Forensic Science Laboratory on Monday afternoon.
Biden, accompanied by Senator Barbara Mikulski, toured the Pikesville facility before speaking to the press about their success in securing $41 million from the federal spending budget to help clear the country’s massive rape kit backlog. Biden deemed the effort “the single best expenditure we can initiate to prevent crime in addition to solving crime.”
“The backlog” refers to the estimated 400,000 untested rape kits currently collecting dust on the shelves of police crime labs around the country — a figure that likely reflects far fewer than the actual number of untested kits, as law enforcement agencies are not required to report them. Thanks in large part to persistent survivors, storage facilities filled with rape kits have been discovered in a number of cities over the past few years.
While some cities like Detroit and Cleveland have already made major headway in clearing their individual backlogs, Biden insisted "this is a national problem, and we need a comprehensive federal-state approach to get every one of these kits off the shelves and tested."
Back in 1994, when Biden was a senator, he teamed up with Mikulski to pass the Violence Against Women Act. It was this landmark piece of legislation that, among other things, first required states to provide free DNA testing to anyone who reports a rape. VAWA also resulted in the creation and implementation of the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, the criminal forensic database used by the FBI to match the DNA evidence from rape kits to convicted felons. Since, as Biden noted, studies show “repeat offenders commit over 90 percent of the rapes committed in the country,” CODIS has proved extremely effective in identifying rapists and, often, linking them to multiple assaults.
“DNA is the guilty person’s worst enemy and it is the innocent person’s greatest and best friend,” he said.
Yet more than 20 years after VAWA, thousands of rape survivors wait years to see their attacker convicted only to find out that the valuable evidence needed to make that happen has never even been tested. Many more, discouraged by the apparent hopelessness of the process, never even report the crimes they experienced.
While a large portion of the backlog appears to have built up at the laboratories, where DNA testing is both costly and time consuming, Mikulski noted a Department of Justice study that also found untested rape kits sitting in police officers’ desks and lockers, never even making it to the lab “because somehow or another they weren’t seen as important enough to move forward, and when they did move forward they went back into the backlog."
“There is a horrific statistic from the CDC that says one in four women will face rape, violence, or stalking,” Mikulski said. Women are then often “doubly victimized by a system that doesn’t follow through on the prosecution.”
There is much dispute over what or who to blame for the rape kit backlog, as some advocates accuse law enforcement of using the price of DNA testing as an excuse for not prioritizing rape cases.
While Biden was careful to not point fingers, he acknowledged that the massive buildup of untested rape kits cannot be traced back to a single cause. In addition to testing existing kits, he explained, part of that $41 million will go toward helping to prevent future backlogs by investing in specialized prosecutors, survivor counseling, and continued law enforcement training for reported rapes.
“Testing rape kits should be an absolute priority for the United States of America,” said Biden. “It works, it brings closure, it brings justice, and that’s why we’re here.”