Last week, Congress once again delayed federal funding to help catch rapists.
Here’s the backstory. In March, President Barack Obama asked Congress to fund a new Justice Department program designed to help states and localities test backlogs of rape kits, which include DNA evidence taken after a sexual assault and are used to identify attackers. The funding would likely also go toward investigating and prosecuting rape cases.
There are over 100,000 untested kits sitting on shelves at police storage facilities around the country—some held for decades—partly because state and local governments lack the money to process them.
In May, the Republican-controlled House passed a massive spending bill for 2015 that included $41 million for the rape kit program, and a key committee in the Democratic-run Senate approved the same spending in June. But after a spat on the Senate floor over unrelated amendments Republicans wanted added to the bill, Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yanked the legislation. Consequently, Congress had to resort to a short-term spending bill to keep the government operating until mid-December. The House and Senate approved it last week, and Obama signed it Friday. Because it’s a stop-gap spending bill, the legislation continues government spending at current levels, leaving out most new funding—including the money for the rape kit processing program.
More partisan bickering this winter could cause lawmakers to fail to pass a full appropriations bill until February or March, according to experts on congressional procedure, forcing rape victims to wait another six months or so to see the program enacted. That is, if this spending bill does include the rape kit money. (Last Thursday, the Senate approved a separate House-passed bill reauthorizing an existing program designed to process backlogged DNA evidence from all sorts of crimes, including rape kits. But the existing funding, which was first authorized in 2004, has not been sufficient to clear the backlog—which is why advocates were pushing for the new money.)
“The slowdown in appropriating funds for the rape kit program is a classic example of how Congress’ legislative dysfunction blocks even the smallest of bipartisan initiatives,” says Sarah Binder, an expert on legislative politics at the Brookings Institution.
Spokesmen for both the House and Senate appropriations committees say they are confident that local jurisdictions won’t have to wait until next spring to get the federal money they need to process rape kits. They note the consensus on Capitol Hill is that Congress will pass an appropriations bill with the rape kit funding in mid-December. But Binder is less optimistic. If Republicans win the Senate in the midterm elections, she says, GOPers might block passage of a spending bill until they assume control of the Senate in January. At that point, Binder explains, Republicans may be tempted to “use those spending bills as leverage” to force Dems to accept Republican priorities. That could bring things to a halt in Congress and localities may have to wait longer until money is allocated for the rape kit program.
Meanwhile, local prosecutors are struggling to wade through their backlogs. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, has a backlog of 1,650 rape cases requiring investigation and the county won’t complete the probes until 2019, according to local county officials. “Our great hope from the federal money is that it would help [counties] like us…hire more investigators and advocates so we can speed that time line,” says Joe Frolick, the spokesman for Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty.
Kym Worthy, the county prosecutor in Wayne County, Michigan, plans to apply for a portion of the $41 million grant as soon as Congress approves the funding. “I’d like it to happen tomorrow,” she told Mother Jones in August. “Every day that goes by is another day that the victims have to wait for justice. This is the first grant of its kind where they really got what it takes.”
“[S]o many of us—mayors, police chiefs, district attorneys, victim advocates, state legislators, and governors—are doing all we can to end the backlog,” Sarah Tofte, a prominent victim advocate, says. “Isn’t it time that Congress did?”
The Senate appropriations bill with the $41 million in new rape kit processing money died this summer partly because Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), wanted Democrats to allow them to add several unrelated amendments to the huge bill. One of those amendments, sponsored by McConnell, would have made it more difficult for the EPA to impose new rules on coal-fired power plants.
The federal government does not track the number of untested rape kits. That work has been left largely to advocates and journalists. The states with the largest known backlogs are Texas and Tennessee, which each have about 20,000 unprocessed kits in storage. Detroit has more than 11,000 unprocessed kits, and Memphis has over 12,000. Detroit recently tested 1,600 of its backlogged kits, helping the city identify 87 suspected serial rapists and leading to at least 14 convictions.
Here’s a look at the rape kit backlog around the country, via End the Backlog:
Map by AJ Vicens