Bipartisan Bill Seeks To Address Nationwide Rape Kit Backlog

By Marco Poggio | September 27, 2023, 5:27 PM EDT ·

A pair of congressional representatives from rival parties on Wednesday announced the introduction of a bill that would increase accountability and transparency on rape kits that have been piling up in police storage across the country.

Dubbed the Rape Kit Backlog Act and sponsored by Reps. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the bill would force law enforcement agencies to create inventories of the rape kits in their possession and create new reporting mechanisms to assess whether the genetic material in the kits has been added to the national DNA database.

"What we want to do is compel state and local law enforcement to take inventories of the rape kits they have on their shelves," Mace said at a press conference Wednesday in front of the U.S. Capitol. "We're going to process these rape kits and get this backlog under control and gets states to be held accountable."

The bill introduced Tuesday aims to improve reporting requirements for state and local governments. It wound not provide new funds to the states, but rather makes the use of Byrne Justice Assistance Grant funds — which are the primary source of federal money for state and local justice systems — conditional on compliance with the reporting requirements outlined in the bill.

The bill would also require the U.S. Department of Justice to post the results of backlog reporting on a publicly available website to allow for public accountability.

There are currently more than 100,000 untested sexual assault kits in the United States, according to an estimate cited by lawmakers in the bill's text.

"The exact number is not known," the bill says. "Untested sexual assault kits means that there are sexual assaults unprosecuted, sexual assaults occurring that could have been prevented."

In South Carolina alone, there are currently more than 1,000 untested DNA rape kits, Mace and Lee said, while in California, the number is about 14,000. Twelve other states are facing similar challenges, and eight states do not report their backlog status at all, according to the representatives.

Lee called the problem of violence against women an "epidemic," noting that the number of women affected is higher among people of color. Hundreds of thousands of rape kits are sitting on shelves with no accountability for perpetrators while demoralized victims lose hope, she said.

"The law says that rape is a severe offense," Lee said. "But while rape is formally prohibited, it's effectively, quite frankly, decriminalized."

Mace, who in 2019 said publicly that she was raped at age 16, said getting justice for rape victims is a priority to her. Out of 57 rape cases that were prosecuted from 2010 to 2020 in Mace's district, which includes coastal areas around Charleston, only one resulted in a conviction, the representative said.

"It took 25 years to finally tell my story, and be able to work with partners across the aisle to make a difference in women's lives," Mace said. "We're going to work hard to get this across the finish line."

According to a press release shared by Mace's office, the legislation will also help end the "interstate serial rapist problem." Serial rapists are incentivized to commit new crimes in states with backlogs, the release says.

Mace and Lee also said numerous acts of rape go unreported. For those that get reported to law enforcement agencies there are rarely convictions, Mace said, for reasons including the evidence in the kits getting spoiled and victims' reluctance to come forward.

Lee, who has worked as a psychiatric social worker, said in many cases, victims of rape decide not to contact law enforcement because they are in a state of shock, or for fear of retaliation. Victims who decide to receive medical care put their trust in members of law enforcement, who then let them down, she said.

"Women who do report their assault and go to a hospital can get a rape kit," she said. "The police departments across the country are not fulfilling their obligation to test those kits and get justice for the survivors."

The bipartisan effort represents a kind of political collaboration that is rarely seen in a climate where politics are deeply polarized. The bill currently has 25 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives — 11 Republicans and 14 Democrats.

Mace and Lee took time during the press conference to thank each other for being willing to set partisan divisions aside to work on the bill.

Lee has "been a great partner in the House, no matter who's in charge and who's in the majority," Mace said.

The bill is also supported by anti-sexual assault organizations including the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the Joyful Heart Foundation and Protect All Children from Trafficking, as well as think tanks R Street Institute and Americans for Prosperity.

"When a survivor goes to authorities to get a sexual assault kit administered, they've done their part to find justice," Stefan Turkheimer, interim vice president of public policy at RAINN, said in a statement. "It's past time for states to do the same. This bill will shine a light on these untested kits, each one of which represents a human being who went through an awful trauma and deserves their chance at justice."

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

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