The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday that it has committed up to $35 million to fund the clearance of rape kit backlogs across the country. The initiative, which was launched in partnership with the Joyful Heart Foundation’s End the Backlog program, is the largest-ever financial contribution toward ending the rape kit backlog.
Though they can be essential to solving crimes, rape kits—the collection of evidence taken from a person’s body after they are sexually assaulted—are often left indefinitely untested in law enforcement evidence lockers or crime lab storage rooms.
Experts guess that there are 100,000 untested rape kits at public crime labs; some advocates estimate that there are another 300,000 that never made it out of the police station. These numbers are only rough approximations, however, because there has never been a coordinated effort to track and document rape kits in the United States.
The Obama administration, in its 2015 budget plan, proposed an allocation of $35 million in federal funds to grants for community rape kit initiatives that would include testing the kits and investigating the cases that emerge. The House in May passed a version of the 2015 budget bill that included $41 million for the rape kit initiative, only to see that version of the budget stall in the Senate.
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“Sadly no one knows exactly how many [rape kits] there are, because no has ever been able to have the resources to go jurisdiction by jurisdiction and find out how many of them there are,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. “And what stands in the way of identifying the scope of untested rape kits around the country, as well as testing them for DNA, is simply money.”
New York is one of the few cities that has successfully decreased its rape kit backlog. In 2000, after discovering 17,000 untested rape kits, the city made a push to to clear the backlog. Forty-nine indictments were made four years later in connection to unsolved cases in Manhattan.
In 2009, the federal government awarded the city of Detroit several grants to test the 11,000 kits found abandoned in a police warehouse. After testing the first 2,000 kits, more than 100 potential serial rapists were identified, and as many as 14 people have been convicted.
Federal funding for rape kit testing has proven to have significant problems. And though these issues are well known, efforts to increase federal support have fallen victim to political squabbling and congressional stalemates, leaving cities to shoulder the bulk of the work and cough up resources that they often don’t have.
The New York City initiative announced on Wednesday is meant to support cities’ efforts to reduce backlogs in light of this lack of resources. The initiative will help cities audit the scope of their backlog, analyze the untested kits, and share knowledge and best practices with other jurisdictions.
“The rape kit backlog sends two terrible messages,” said Mariska Hargitay, star of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation. “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 messages.”
The Manhattan initiative is not the only project of End the Backlog, which has led the effort to test kits across the country. Their Accountability Project, for example, uses public records requests to bring to light the number of untested kits in more than a dozen cities, and has already uncovered thousands of tests waiting in Milwaukee, Seattle, and Las Vegas.