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Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits

Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits
© Greg Nash

Senators on Wednesday held a hearing on efforts to cut the backlog in testing forensic DNA evidence, in particular for rape kits.

Officials testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the progress made through a Justice Department grant program to state and local crime labs. But they said there was still a massive backlog and more work needed to be done.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump officials ratchet up drug pricing fight Dems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October American Bar Association dropping Kavanaugh review MORE (R-Iowa) highlighted the Debbie Smith Act of 2004, which created the grant program.

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During the hearing, lawmakers focused on laws in some states that require authorities to take an inventory of untested kits. Other states have gone further and require law enforcement to test those kits within a certain time frame.

Lawmakers discussed whether a federal law is needed to require states quickly test kits after they are submitted.

“In my home state of Texas, the rape kit backlog has reduced by 90 percent since the requirement law passed,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke debate showdown Live coverage: Cruz faces O'Rourke in Texas debate showdown Trump, Feinstein feud intensifies over appeals court nominees MORE (R-Texas).

“We have been talking about this for too long, we need answers,” he added.  

Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoKavanaugh tensions linger after bitter fight Chris Cuomo: Presumption of innocence didn't apply to Kavanaugh because it wasn't a court case Lindsey Graham hits Dem senator: 'The Hirono standard is horrific' MORE (D-Hawaii) pressed the experts on whether all states should enact such a requirement.

Gerald LaPorte, the director of the Office of Investigative and Forensic Services, at the Justice Department, and Gretta Goodwin, director for Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office, agreed.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke gives 'a definitive no' to possibility of running in 2020 Vicente Fox endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race Beto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' MORE (R-Texas) pressed the panel on cutting down the average wait time for testing rape kits.

"Rape is uniquely destructive and particularly susceptible to DNA testing,” said Cruz.

LaPorte told Cruz that sexual assault cases are "prioritized in the lab."

In a second panel, lawmakers also heard from Debbie Smith, the namesake of the 2004 law. Smith had to wait 6 years until her rape kit was tested and her rapist put behind bars.

She pushed for a better accounting of how many kits still have not been tested.

“Without tracking these kits, victims will remain in the dark about what is going on with their kit and we may never know just how many kits there are waiting to be tested,” said Smith.