National Rape Kit Backlog Fight Gets $35M

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New York County DA Cyrus R. Vance
  • New York County DA Cyrus R. Vance
Local law enforcement agencies can now apply for a new, $35 million pool of grants to help them clear their backlogs of untested sexual assault kits.

The New York County District Attorney’s Office announced the $35 million in new grants Wednesday. D.A. Cyrus R. Vance called it “seed money to address a systemic national problem.”

Vance specifically called out Memphis’ backlog of “more than 11,000 untested kits” in a news conference Wednesday as an example of a city that is “rolling up its sleeves” to clear its rape kit backlog. He also mentioned similar backlogs in Cleveland, Tulsa, and Las Vegas.

The Memphis backlog of completely untested kits stood at 6,722 at the end of September. A new fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis was established last month to help local law enforcement clear the backlog. Doing so has been projected to cost about $6.5 million.

“What stands in the way of identifying the scope (of the untested rape kit backlog) across the county and then having local law enforcement testing them is, quite simply, money,” Vance said. 

The new funds come from money forfeited from national banks that violated U.S. sanctions in aiding rogue regimes across the world, Vance said, specifically pointing to Libya and Sudan.

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Applications for the new funds will available in the spring. The grants will be made through a competitive bidding process.

Vance said his office wanted to fund the project “because we already know it works,” pointing to testing’s success in Detroit, which led to arrests in 23 states.
Mariska Hargitay - JOYFUL HEART FOUNDATION
  • Joyful Heart Foundation
  • Mariska Hargitay

“Rape is not a local crime,” Vance said. “Many who rape, do it again elsewhere and DNA evidence helps states and cities solve crimes across the country.”

Mariska Hargitay is the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which is helping Memphis clear its rape kit backlog. Hargitay, who plays Captain Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” said Wednesday the new funds are “the biggest investment anyone has ever made to helping clear the backlog.”

“The backlog sends a terrible message to the victims that say what happened to you doesn’t matter,” she said. “It also sends a message to the criminal that says what you did does not matter.” 
Hargitay noted that testing the kits was the first step of many to bring justice to rape victims. Also, she
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 said more money will be needed for lawn enforcement agencies to track down witnesses, analyze case files, and engage survivors in their cases. 

She called on Congress to approve the $41 million sought by the Obama administration to help law enforcement agencies to test rape kits and prosecute criminals.

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