The federal government has a key role to play in investing in justice for survivors, accountability for perpetrators, and safety for America's communities. Since 2010, the Joyful Heart Foundation has made the elimination of the rape kit backlog our top federal advocacy priority. After years of collaboration, in September 2015, Joyful Heart Founder & President Mariska Hargitay stood beside Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. as they awarded grants from the Department of Justice and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office—nearly $80 million in total—for 48 law enforcement agencies in 27 states to address their backlogs of untested rape kits. Joyful Heart’s announcement, Mariska’s remarks, and the list of grant recipients are available here.
Sexual Assault Kit Initiative
For the first time in 2014, President Obama’s budget proposal included dedicated funding for a grant program (the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, or SAKI) to provide communities across the country with the vital resources they need—and are asking for—to develop and implement comprehensive, multi-disciplinary rape kit reform. These are funds to: test backlogged kits that never made it to a crime lab and have been kept in police storage facilities; create multi-disciplinary teams to investigate and prosecute cases connected to the backlog; and address the need for victim notification and re-engagement with the criminal justice system.
The Joyful Heart Foundation is proud to be part of a team that was selected by the Bureau of Justice Assistance to provide training and technical assistance to SAKI grantees as they work to end their backlog of untested kits, investigate the resulting cases, prosecute the offenders and re-engage survivors on the justice process.
These federal funds—appropriated annually through the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations spending bill—provide much-needed support for communities as they work to end their backlogs and secure justice for survivors.
In addition to SAKI, there are a number of federal grant programs available to assist jurisdictions looking to address DNA backlogs:
Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Reduction Grants
In 2004, Congress passed the Debbie Smith Act, which provides grants to eligible states and local governments for several purposes, including training and education programs for testing backlogged DNA evidence, including rape kits; training and education programs for law enforcement, correctional personnel and court officers; training and education programs for sexual assault forensic examiners; and to increase the capacity of state and local crime labs to conduct DNA testing. The Act also provides funding for jurisdictions that outsource DNA evidence to private crime labs for testing. This funding is administered by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) through its DNA Backlog Reduction Program. Eligible states and local governments may request funds from NIJ to increase the capacity of their existing crime labs to analyze DNA samples more efficiently. Eligible applicants may also request funds to handle, screen and analyze backlogged DNA evidence.
National Institute of Justice Research Grants
In 2011, NIJ also awarded action-research grants to Wayne County, Michigan and Houston, Texas to convene multidisciplinary teams to study the causes of the backlog and develop and implement a plan for testing. At the time of the award, there were more than 11,000 untested rape kits in Detroit and approximately 6,600 in Houston. Dr. Rebecca Campbell published a report of findings from these research grants, available here.
The Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry Act
The Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (SAFER) Act, passed by Congress as part of the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, amends the Debbie Smith grant program to require that 75% of the funds (up from 40%) be used directly on analyzing untested DNA evidence or enhancing the capacity of labs to do so. The SAFER Act also provides state and local governments with funding to address their handling of rape kits through the SAFE-ITR grant program. Jurisdictions can request funds to conduct a one-year audit of the untested rape kits in their possession, develop a tracking system for the rape kits in their possession, or to fund regular reporting efforts during the 12-month period. The current solicitation is available online; interested jurisdictions must apply by April 28, 2017.