Reauthorization of the Debbie Smith Act will reduce the DNA and rape kit backlog

Reauthorization of the Debbie Smith Act will reduce the DNA and rape kit backlog
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I was raped, and it took six and a half years for a match to DNA evidence to identify my attacker. For those six and a half years I struggled with painful memories of the smell of my rapist’s breath, the touch of his cool, damp coat sleeve around my neck, the sight of his black rubber boots and the sound of his voice telling me he knew where I lived and would come back to kill me if I told anyone.

For six and a half years, I lived in the fear that he would return or, even worse, that he would he take out his revenge on my children or my husband. That fear held me so tightly that it choked out any joy of life. I became suicidal seeking peace for my soul.

All that changed when the DNA evidence from my rape kit was matched to a known offender on the national DNA database.

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The DNA analysis revealed that my rapist was already in prison for another crime. I was at least free of the dread he would return. That was a big step forward. The offender database gave a voice to the evidence in my kit and my rapist was incarnated for life, making my neighborhood — all neighborhoods — safer and giving me long-awaited answers I desperately sought.

Even though rape kits are critical tools in sexual violence investigations, untold thousands remain untested, sitting on shelves in police departments and crime labs.

This means thousands of victims are likely suffering fear and torment as I did. They are the reason that for the past eighteen years I’ve been doing whatever I can to make a difference in the lives of victims of sexual assault.

In 2004, with overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress passed the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Elimination Act — named after my case and advocacy. This important grant program provides local and state crime labs with much-needed funding to clear the backlogs of DNA evidence and offender samples. For many labs, this is the only federal support they receive, and now it’s in jeopardy.

When the House returns on Sept. 9, they’ll need to vote to reauthorize the Debbie Smith Act before the program expires on Sept. 30. The law was unanimously reauthorized in 2008 and 2014, and the Senate voted unanimously in favor of reauthorizing the law in May of this year. Unfortunately the House has yet to act. 

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Reauthorization of the Debbie Smith Act — providing funding to continue reducing our country’s embarrassing backlog of untested rape kits and other DNA evidence — would certainly be one of those famed “quick wins,” not just for the House, but for the whole country.

Just look at the numbers. Since 2005, funding provided to local and state crime laboratories for DNA analysis through the Debbie Smith Act has enabled law enforcement to process more than 860,000 DNA cases.

Subsequently, more than 376,000DNA profiles have been uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), accounting for 40 percent of all forensic profiles in CODIS. Funding has also helped officials add three million database offender samples to CODIS. And most importantly to me, Debbie Smith DNA grants are responsible for 45 percent of all matches made in CODIS, to-date.

Think about that number for a moment. Without this federal grant, literally hundreds of thousands of cases would still be awaiting DNA analysis, while those victims await answers.

Even more disturbing is the thought that dangerous criminals still roam free because the DNA evidence that could take them off the streets sits untested, creating more victims while continuing their criminal careers.

Meanwhile, innocent suspects may be imprisoned in their place, with only DNA analysis standing between them and exoneration. By reauthorizing federal investment in DNA analysis, the House can do something about this; the House has the power to change lives.

The Debbie Smith grant program funding corrects the wrongs of the past, addresses the present and prepares us for a better, safer tomorrow. It is a proven, sound investment that deserves immediate approval by the House. It is the right thing to do.

Debbie Smith is a rape survivor and founder of H-E-A-R-T, Inc. (Hope Exists After Rape Trauma) and an internationally known advocate for sexual assault survivors.