The U.S. Senate subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies showed its support this week for combating the backlog of untested rape kits by including $41 million in its 2015 fiscal year spending bill as part of a community-based sexual assault response reform initiative. This announcement comes on the heels of an earlier House of Representatives decision to allocate the same amount, up from the previously suggested $36 million, towards improving community responses to sexual assault. Long-overdue reform is finally on the horizon.
Ms. has been covering the rape-kit backlog since its Winter 2009 issue, when Human Rights Watch released a report placing the national number of backlogged rape kits at more than 400,000. When a kit is backlogged, collected DNA samples go untested. Undergoing a rape examination following a sexual assault is already a traumatic process; failing to test the DNA afterwards represents a deep betrayal of survivors who put their faith in the justice system to do its job. Beyond failing survivors on an individual level, backlogging kits also forfeits the critical opportunity to identify repeat offenders and prevent them from acting again. When police in Detroit began processing more than 11,000 backlogged kits found in an abandoned storage facility in 2009, they discovered 100 serial rapists among the first 1,600 kits.
In recent years, organizations like ENDTHEBACKLOG, a program of Law and Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation, have worked to end this crisis, advocating nationwide for rape-kit reform. These groups have played a central role in raising awareness and initiating the reform process, and the most recent budgetary allocation could be critical in solving what Memphis, Tenn., Mayor A C Wharton, Jr. told MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow is “a money question.”
The prospect of federal funding is good news for cities such as Memphis, which has the nation’s worst backlog—more than 12,000 untested kits—and where the state senate recently blocked an amendment to the state budget that would have allocated $2 million in funding for rape-kit analysis. While private nonprofits such as Tennessee’s Plough Foundation have offered their support in ending this problem, pledging $750,000 if the city agrees to test all kits, the federal government’s $41 million could go a long way toward ending, once and for all, the backlog of untested kits across the nation. In a statement from the Joyful Heart Foundation, Vice President for Policy & Advocacy Sarah Tofte explained:
Funding for comprehensive rape kit reform sends a message to survivors that they—and their cases—matter. It sends a message to perpetrators that they will be held accountable for their crimes. It demonstrates a commitment to survivors to do everything possible to bring healing and justice.
The increased national attention toward rape-kit reform is important not only in helping to correct the current backlog but also in preventing a similar situation from happening again. The success of consciousness-raising efforts by groups like ENDTHEBACKLOG means that this crisis, correctly identified by Mayor Wharton as part of “institutionalized sexism,” will not be tolerated going forward. With these developments, police departments around the nation can begin the process of achieving justice for the more than 400,000 survivors they have ignored for too long.
Photo Credit: Patricia Williams
James Hildebrand is a senior at Amherst College and editor-in-chief of the independent student blog AC Voice. He is interning this summer at Ms. magazine.